England's loss tough to take for Dallaglio

Australia 51 England 15
Click to follow

If Groucho Marx was right when he suggested that no one is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend, where does that leave England's rugby team, who have precious few friends of any description? Depressingly, it leaves them open to the resurrected ridicule of the southern hemisphere.

Eddie Jones and George Gregan, the coach and captain of Australia, tried desperately hard not to crow about their victory here on Saturday, but they were on the brink of hysterics throughout the after-match formalities. Lawrence Dallaglio, on the other hand, did not attempt to conceal his emotions. "How am I? Fine, apart from feeling suicidal," he muttered.

This was a crushing defeat, a setback of catastrophic proportions for both Dallaglio, who led England with characteristic vigour but spent the second half of a traumatic match spitting in the face of a hurricane, and Clive Woodward, who had coached the red rose army to a world title in this very country only seven months previously. World champions? How uneasily the crown sits on English heads in the light of this tour, during which they lost three Tests by an aggregate points difference of almost 100 and scored two tries - yes, two - while leaking 14. It could have been worse, but not by much.

Woodward attempted to put his best foot forward yesterday, but events at the Suncorp Stadium had raised so many issues that he could not avoid making himself a hostage to fortune. "We're playing the Wallabies and the Springboks at Twickenham in November," he said, "and if we get those games right, this business down here will soon be forgotten. If we get them wrong, there will be some serious questions about what is going on.

"We spent three or four years building a very special team that peaked at the World Cup. Come the autumn, we will discover which players have the mental capacity to perform as the Martin Johnsons and Neil Backs performed.

"I am absolutely confident that if we get our strongest team on the pitch, fresh and properly prepared, we'll beat Australia and South Africa. But I have to say that it has not been nice waking up in the mornings on this tour. There are no similarities with 1998" - the so-called "tour of hell", when England lost 76-0 at the Suncorp - "because I knew we'd get beaten then and told some senior players to stay at home. This time, only Jason Robinson was rested. I genuinely thought this team would do well, and I can't say I'm not disappointed."

One of Woodward's chief lieutenants, the assistant coach Andy Robinson, took this latest six-try shellacking harder than most. "Andy is tearing himself up over it," said a colleague. Another coach, the defensive specialist Phil Larder, described the defeat as "a massive embarrassment".

In Johnson and Back, not to mention the injured Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery, Larder had long enjoyed the luxury of working with some of the most cussed, mean-minded and highly motivated defenders ever to play this game. Vickery should be back in November, but there is no guarantee that Wilkinson will be fit by then. The others, of course, are in international retirement and strictly past tense.

England have more professional players than any other rugby nation, but it must now be dawning on them that the arithmetic is very different when it comes to people of Test quality. Apart from Dallaglio, who was faultless in all three matches on this trip, only Mike Tindall, Olly Barkley, Charlie Hodgson, Mark Regan, Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley made significant advances in the reputation department. Of those, Regan and Shaw will not see 30 again.

Australia, meanwhile, have successfully incorporated Clyde Rathbone and Matt Giteau into a back division already smothered in attacking talent, and introduced the remarkable Radike Samo to their pack. They are ahead of the game. England now find themselves behind.

These unfamiliar players have added a whole new dimension to the Wallaby act in a way England's recruits found entirely beyond them. The Australians remain under-powered at the scrum; Bill Young and company trotted out all their old tricks and con-jobs on Saturday and got away with green-and-gold murder once again.

Their line-out was scruffy too, especially after Shaw clattered Brendan Cannon with a heavy shoulder-high tackle and put the tough Sydneysider off the pitch. But with Gregan back to something resembling optimum form at scrum-half, Stephen Larkham in visionary mood at stand-off and the exceptional Joe Roff cutting the full range of Euclidean angles from full-back, they were still far too good for the tourists.

Unnervingly, Jones believes his crème de la crème will be around for another couple of seasons - time enough for the likes of Giteau and Rathbone to raise their game. "We may need a serious chat with Joe, because he's beginning to think about the beach," Jones said. "But these blokes are getting better in terms of their physical qualities, and there is no reason I can see why they shouldn't continue to make a major contribution over the next 12 or 24 months."

Roff's instinctive attacking brilliance helped Rathbone, called into the starting line-up shortly before kick-off after Wendell Sailor twanged a hamstring during the warm-up, put England to the sword with three tries between the 18th and 54th minutes.

Twice the full-back took advantage of some mesmerising midfield skills - Giteau's pat-a-cake pass under pressure, a sublime cut-out from Larkham that was rugby's equivalent of a spin bowler beating a batsman through the air - to go in at the right corner. Those gifts gave Rathbone the confidence to complete his hat-trick with a chip-and-chase try of breathtaking impudence.

That score effectively ended England's resistance, the highlights of which had been close-range scores for Richard Hill and the tireless Dallaglio. Broken by a freckle-faced Springbok kid who would not have been on the field but for an Australian-born grandmother, they conceded further tries to Jeremy Paul, who claimed two in eight minutes, and Lote Tuqiri, who reduced the tourists' defensive line to dust with a flexing of his hip-bone and a step off his left foot.

And once the Wallabies were in half-century range, there was never much hope of them giving a sucker an even break. In injury time, Gregan instructed Roff to kick a long penalty that sent the scoreboard ticking past 50.

Jones confessed to some surprise at the size of the winning margin, but Gregan was far from shocked. "They've had some changes in personnel, and as we've been through the same thing, we know how difficult it can be," he said. "But England will discover that there is no easy part of being world champions. It is not just the first year after winning the title that you find other teams going at you, it's every year."

Can England handle such ferocity of intent from below? It is a challenge way outside of their experience. Two years after winning the 1999 World Cup, an ageing Wallaby team dredged up sufficient soul and spirit to beat the Lions in a three-Test series; last November, a vulnerable Australia took Johnson's vintage side to the last seconds of extra-time before relinquishing the Webb Ellis Trophy. These people know what it is to fight the sporting fight until they drop - and then get up and fight again.

Unless England discover something of the same in themselves between now and November, the road ahead will be long indeed.

Australia: Tries Rathbone 3, Paul 2, Tuqiri; Conversions Roff 3; Penalties Roff 5. England: Tries Hill, Dallaglio; Conversion Hodgson; Penalty Hodgson.

AUSTRALIA: J Roff (ACT); C Rathbone (ACT), S Mortlock (ACT), M Giteau (ACT), L Tuqiri (New South Wales); S Larkham (ACT), G Gregan (ACT, capt); W Young (ACT), B Cannon (New South Wales), A Baxter (New South Wales), J Harrison (New South Wales), N Sharpe (Queensland), R Samo (ACT), P Waugh (New South Wales), D Lyons (New South Wales). Replacements: J Paul (ACT) for Cannon 26; G Smith (ACT) for Lyons 33-40 and for Waugh 67; J Roe (Queensland) for Samo 51; C Latham (Queensland) for Mortlock 59; D Vickerman (New South Wales) for Harrison 67; M Henjak (ACT) for Rathbone 77; M Dunning (New South Wales) for Baxter 79.

England: T Voyce (Wasps); J Lewsey (Wasps), M Tindall (Bath), M Catt (London Irish), B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), A Gomarsall (Gloucester); T Payne (Wasps), M Regan (Leeds), J White (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt). Replacements: S Thompson (Northampton) for Regan H-T; O Barkley (Bath) for Catt H-T; M Dawson (Wasps) for Gomarsall 47; M Corry (Leicester) for Worsley 59; M Worsley (Harlequins) for Payne 64; F Waters (Wasps) for Tindall 67; M Lipman (Bath) for Hill 80.

Referee: P O'Brien (New Zealand).

Comments