England vs Australia: Ben Morgan steps up in forward march

The England pack's dominance laid the platform for much-needed win

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The Independent Online

They wanted it beyond words. They needed it more than they dare acknowledge. They deserved it, despite doubts expressed by opportunistic critics and habitual antagonists. England were tested in the fire of competition, and found a way to win.

Victory’s virtues were familiar, a throwback to the game’s earthy traditions. England won the game within the game, in the private province of scrum, ruck and driving maul. The front five retain their secrets, cherish their unseen triumphs, but the consequences of their dominance were obvious.

 

It is easy to tell when England’s forwards are imposing their will on the opposition, as they did on an unseasonably warm afternoon at Twickenham; a low, throaty roar of contentment rolls around the ground, as if an unseen giant is ruminating on an agreeable feast of unfortunate peasants.

It could be the soundtrack of the World Cup, but only if other elements of the human jigsaw fall into place. As head coach Stuart Lancaster was quick to point out, England’s pack still lacks the services of six British & Irish Lions, who should have completed their rehabilitation by the time their Six Nations’ Championship campaign begins against Wales in Cardiff on 6 February.

The tournament might be a little too parochial for the oddsmakers to leap to conclusions about the World Cup, but its passions and pressures will be instructive. Wales’s defeat of South Africa yesterday was a timely statement of intent, Scotland are improving rapidly and Ireland will defend their title with accustomed pride.

As for Australia, they have nearly eight months to wait for redemption. Having lost to France and Ireland in recent weeks, they enter their summer break having endured their worst European tour since 2005. Mike Hooper, a fresh-faced captain with a socks-rolled-down attitude and a hairstyle which went out of fashion with rock bands like Supertramp, has some explaining to do.

The perspective provided by the swelling, almost symphonic applause in memory of the late Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes was something to be stored for more reflective moments. Despite the unmistakable relevance of potentially catastrophic injury to rugby, this was a tribal rite which followed time-honoured tradition.

The setting was pristine. Winter sunshine flooded the concrete bowl of the stadium which will stage the World Cup final on October 31 next year. There was a sense of a crossroads having been reached; for England, defeat was the sin which dare not speak its name. The importance of victory was etched on Lancaster’s pinched features as he prowled around his squad during the warm-up. Though a man conditioned to the long-term responsibilities of his role, his visible tension was the clearest indication that short-term priorities were on his mind.

England entered the autumn series optimistically, but a forbidding world order had been established during defeats by the All Blacks and Springboks. Players and coaches alike downplayed the relevance of another test against a southern-hemisphere side, but their statements had a hollow ring.

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Rugby is a game which requires intense collective commitment but can hinge on moments of individual fortitude under forbidding physical pressure. The way Courtney Lawes, an emerging leader, was mobbed for his try-saving defiance, and the huddle which formed around Chris Robshaw when the captain held firm at a ruck to relieve waves of Australian pressure, testified to teamship.

The build-up had been given brutal clarity by what forwards coach Graham Rowntree euphemistically described as “very frank discussions”. His pack were ebullient, with the referee’s audio link picking up a series ofexhortations: “Win this battle… balance… discipline.”

Ben Morgan, a revelation at No 8, took three defenders with him over the line for his first try. His second score was a collective effort from a five-metre scrum which had Rowntree on his feet, punching the air.

“We’ve got a great young set of lads, and today it was all about getting a win against a big nation,” he said. “I have worked the lads hard and I’m proud of how they’ve adapted. It’s tremendous to have more names in the equation. Yes, we have some players missing, but these guys are putting their hands up for selection.”

He had reason to smile at the memory of his players’ animation at their superiority after that pushover try. Forwards are not generally the most fluid movers; watching them leap in uncoordinated joy was the equivalent of elephant ballet.

Lancaster sought to counteract the danger of his side being perceived as a one-dimensional team by citing the telling statistic that 21 of England’s 26 tries over the past year have been scored by the backs. He has reason to savour the rapid maturation of George Ford, who formed a tellingly creative hub with his half-back partner, Ben Youngs.

Wingers Jonny May (left) and Anthony Watson, callow but promising, contributed to the coach’s quiet satisfaction.  He has still to find the right midfield combination, but he knows he can trust his forwards, those inveterate warriors, to get the job done.

It could, of course, have been so different. But as Rowntree said, with paternal pride: “The best thing to restore belief is winning.”

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