Ashton's fire reduces Australia to ashes
England 35 Australia 18: Wing points the way to the World Cup for an England side suddenly bristling with attacking intent
Sunday 14 November 2010
The finger of triumph raised twice by England's double try-scorer, Chris Ashton, the likeable Wiganer who is fast becoming the new hero of the Barbour set, was mimicked in the post-match karaoke bars as something close to delirium broke out. Some of those particularlyaverse to Australians, and mindful of the imminent Ashes series, might have chosen the middle digit to wave the Wallabies away after a record-breaking defeat.
It was England's first win over a Tri-Nations side at Twickenham in four years and it was done with a flourish which Australia had been thought most likely to provide and which had been absent under Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton and, since 2008, Martin Johnson. The revellers cheered a fortress far from restored – not with the All Blacks' victory a week earlier – but with a few bulwarks rebuilt.
If this was the acid test for England – a defeat would have put the matches against Samoa and South Africa under a cloud as grey as the home side's kit – it was the Wallabies who found themselves neck-deep in the sulphuric. The playmakers Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Matt Giteau were almost entirely muted by aggressive tackling; only Kurtley Beale, from full-back, was able to run free, for two tries in the second half. For the first, in the 54th minute, Beale did what he almost did in Australia's 25-16 defeat of Wales in Cardiff the previous week, and chipped the ball delightfully past the full-back to score.
Yes, it was two tries each, so in simple terms the kicking of Toby Flood and James O'Connor made the difference. Flood kicked all nine of his attempts at goal and the Leicester fly-half's 25 points beat by three the individual best in the 101-year history of the fixture, held by Matt Burke and Jonny Wilkinson. Seven penalties was one more than Michael Lynagh, Wilkinson and Giteau had managed. This was also England's highest score and it equalled their best winning margin. Poor O'Connor lined up from long range three times in the first half-hour and missed each one. He finished with three from seven. The 20-year-old had to concede the wet-behind-the-ears bragging rights to Ben Youngs, England's scrum-half, whose will to attack and counter-attack caught Australia with their nappies down.
While the referee, Craig Joubert, snubbed his nose at the marketing men's description of England's kit as "anthracite" – the South African called England "black" throughout – he also presided over a scrummage which was incidental to the outcome in one sense but not in another. The few put-ins either side had were never completed, but what effort Australia did apply suited England's gameplan of using their forwards' fitness to tire their opponents. The crowd's semi-humourous cry of "heave" at the first scrum died away as attacking from deep took over.
England were 3-0 up when Ashton struck for his first try at HQ. Lewis Moody's line-out take and a thrust by Shontayne Hape preceded a few pop passes and Mike Tindall, Mark Cueto and Tom Croft – with a deft left-handed pass – put Ashton over to the right of the posts. By half-time England led 16-6, O'Connor landing two penalties. The leeway encouraged the home side to let rip.
Flood's fourth penalty arrived in the 43rd minute as Australia battled the handicap of having Giteau in the sin-bin. He was still there four minutes later when Genia was tackled near the England line by Flood and Tom Palmer. Youngs foxed Cooper with a dummied kick and with Lawes as the link fed Ashton, still in his 22. He sped up the right, veered inside Drew Mitchell on halfway and the finger went up somewhere near the Aussie 22. Not the team pyrotechnics of France's try here in 1991, nor the multiple opponents of Richard Sharp's and Alexander Obolensky's scores of yore; but for the thrill factor it was pretty damned close.
"We've got a tight squad now, and the continuity of playing together," said Moody, the captain. Johnson is adamant that he has introduced the likes of Lawes and Youngs not too early and certainly not too late for next year's World Cup. "We can play, I know that," he said. "We haven't changed our ambition – it's the belief."
While Beale ran in his tries – the second, after 64 minutes, came after a fluffed England line-out and a charge by Luke Burgess and James Slipper temporarily snuffed out by Moody – Flood kept kicking his kicks. Ashton might have become the first English hat-trick scorer against Australia, or at least set up a colleague, had he not been caught by O'Connor and Mitchell after one of a series of skittle-scattering bursts by the other wing, Mark Cueto, who did everything but end his 15-Test wait for a try. Oh, and England took back the Cook Cup. No offence to the old sea dog, but it was the promise for the World Cup which lubricated the larynxes last night.
Man for man marking: England
Ben Foden 7/10
Unlucky, perhaps, to seem merely commendably solid while all around were shining. Capable, interestingly, of behaving like the No 9 he used to be at the rucks. Your all-court player.
Mark Cueto 8/10
That, without scoring a try, is how to answer critics who say you don't score enough tries. Bounced, span, scudded and stepped, quite often past a bemused-looking Quade Cooper.
Mike Tindall 7/10
Battered himself into the ground and off the pitch. Had a four on one early on which ended in the one Wallaby making the tackle on the fourth Englishman, but improved vastly otherwise. Involved in the first try.
Shontayne Hape 7/10
Unusually, not the only one looking to offload. It didn't quite happen for Hape himself, as it happens, but he helped it happen for others.
Chris Ashton 8/10
Test rugby is brutal, so to be brutal... loses a mark for butchering a try in search of his hat-trick. Gets it back, though, for the two he did score, the first tracking a break, the second an absolute belter, skinning Drew Mitchell.
Toby Flood 8/10
Didn't miss a kick for 25 points – James O'Connor missed four and threw 11 away. Didn't lose anything next to Cooper as an attacking fly-half, either; though he didn't have the dancing feet, he made more breaks. One demerit: a few aimless-slash-downright dangerous kicks straight down the field to Kurtley Beale. Not wise in any circumstances.
Ben Youngs 9/10
Fizzed about like sodium in water, sparking almost everything good. Has a lovely and smooth long service and a snappy shorter one, the latter being on show for the first try. The official man of the match, perhaps for his dummy and step for the second try alone.
Andrew Sheridan 7/10
Australia – or the referee, Craig Joubert – avoided the expected scrum carnage, and what action there was in that phase seemed to be on the other side. Showed up round the pitch with the ball and with the odd shuddering hit, including one on poor old Matt Giteau.
Dylan Hartley 7/10
Only one noticeable mistake, a bad overthrow at a line-out that led to Australia's second try. Otherwise, biffed and bashed happily about and popped up in a wide-ranging attack or two for fun. When replaced, assumed the correct expression – well peeved.
Dan Cole 7/10
Won the first penalty at a scrum then gave the second away, but all of the very few scrums in the game ended in a penalty or a free-kick and he helped England shade the overall count, four awards to three. Noticeable round the pitch with the ball clasped in, and sometimes flicking out of, his big mitts.
Courtney Lawes 8/10
To steal from The League of Gentlemen, the big Saint has that many tattoos his arms look like lumps of Stilton. But when those arms are wrapped round the nearest Wallaby, or plucking a line-out from the sky, or flicking a beautiful pass to Ashton in his own 22 for one of the best tries Twickenham will see, an envious hack's base snobbery is neither here nor there. Excellent.
Tom Palmer 7/10
One of his better games for England – prominent around the pitch, he was also in on the tackle, with Flood, that turned Australia over on England's line and gave Youngs the half a half-chance to spark the magnificent second try.
Tom Croft 9/10
Quite superb. One-handed offload for the first try was excellent; his turnover started an attack that led to Giteau's trip to the bin and a key three points. And Giteau had to act because of another Croft snaffle on the deck. Main source of line-out ball, dominant at the restart, prominent in attack and defence. The man for man marker's man of the match.
Lewis Moody 8/10
His head is so knocked about, swollen and patched up these days that he looks a bit like the Bride of Wildenstein. Added a few more rosey bumps and swollen lumps in the course of his usual committed (as in "should be", and so on) performance. Particularly good when tackling back, which he still had to do.
Nick Easter 7/10
A bit like Foden in being perfectly solid in defence and nicely creative in attack without getting the chances to shine individually that abounded elsewhere.
Danny Care for Youngs. Delon Armitage for Tindall. David Wilson for Sheridan. Steve Thompson for Hartley. Simon Shaw for Palmer. Hendre Fourie for Easter. Charlie Hodgson for Flood.
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