Seventy-odd years ago, when Douglas Jardine was peering down his very long nose at the local peasants and Harold Larwood was bowling head-high bombs at their heroes, the Australians loathed English sportsmen for being patronising, or dangerous, or both. Now, they laugh at them for being dull. Martin Johnson's tourists just about chiselled out a draw yesterday, thereby removing the dreaded word "whitewash" from their summer agenda, but while they applauded themselves for not losing, the only applause they received from the home crowd was savagely ironic in nature.
"Hey ref, penalise the buggers for being boring," yelled one member of the paying public as the England pack scrummaged their way towards the 77th-minute try that dragged them back into a game they had looked more than capable of losing by 30 points half an hour previously. How the Western Australians laughed. Indeed, they spent much of the night sniggering, generally when the visitors attempted to move the ball through the hands rather than smash it up the middle.
Yet as Johnson pointed out afterwards, rugby at this level – any level, probably – is about "doing what you do and doing it well". England may not be able to threaten from deep like their hosts and they certainly had no attacking runner in the class of James O'Connor, the baby-faced Wallaby teenager who made such a mess of them during the 48 minutes he stayed on the field, but they know how to manhandle a powder-puff front row. The Australians, suddenly bereft of high-calibre props and hookers following a spate of injuries, were horribly exposed at the set-piece in this opening fixture and may well struggle equally badly in the Test matches.
England were 25-13 down five minutes into the second half, having conceded three tries to the razor-sharp O'Connor, and although Olly Barkley reduced the deficit with a penalty on the hour mark, the Barbarians – Australia's second-string, to all intents and purposes – would have disappeared into the wide blue yonder had their wing, Nick Cummins, not butchered the clearest of scoring opportunities by dropping a pass from Will Chambers down the left. It was not the first time Cummins had made a botch of it, and England had reason to be grateful to him.
By that time, O'Connor was safely off the field – Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, has plans for him this weekend, when the heat rises to international temperature – and as Deans later admitted, strategic withdrawals of significant personnel contributed to his side's problems in the last quarter. Only then did the tourists, who had created little more than a single close-range try for Lee Mears and a small handful of goalkicks for Barkley, find a way of imposing themselves on events.
With the Barbarians conceding a couple of soft penalties, they finally found themselves where they wanted to be: deep in opposition territory with a nice long spell of scrummaging to savour. Three times the mismatched packs engaged and three times the home front-rowers found themselves peering into their own back passages from unusual angles. Poor Laurie Weeks, the prop from Queensland, was sent to the sin-bin as a consequence and at the end of it all, Dan Ward-Smith muscled over the line a few inches from the posts. Barkley converted – he could hardly have missed – and England were just two points adrift.
Three minutes later, more punishing work from the forwards earned Matt Banahan, who had looked very much like a clodhopper when compared with O'Connor or Lachlan Turner, a face-saving try in the right corner. Pretty much from nowhere, the tourists had manufactured a silk purse from a sow's ear. Sadly, they unmanufactured it immediately by handing an equalising penalty to Berrick Barnes, and they might have lost the game in the eighth minute of stoppage time when Joe Worsley flapped at a loose ball like some rugby-playing Larry Grayson and Barkley fell flat on his rear end in open field. In the panic, they conceded another penalty, Barnes missing with the last kick of the game.
As is usual on these occasions, Johnson was keen to flag up the positives and avoid talking about the negatives, but it was his opposite number who had more to write home about, not least a hugely energetic performance from the locally-based flanker Ben McCalman, who caused England no end of grief in the loose. Deans was a picture of serenity afterwards. "This weekend's Test will be a different game, but not that different," he said. In other words: "We know exactly where England's strengths lay, and there aren't many of them."
Australian Barbarians Tries: O'Connor (3); Conversions: O'Connor (2); Penalties: O'Connor (2), Barnes.
England Tries: Mears, Ward-Smith, Banahan; Conversions: Barkley (2). Penalties: Barkley (3).
Australian Barbarians J O'Connor (Western Force); L Turner (New South Wales Waratahs), W Chambers (Queensland Reds), A Faingaa (Reds), N Cummins (Force); B Barnes (Waratahs, co-capt), J Valentine (ACT Brumbies); P Cowan (Force), H Edmonds (Brumbies), L Weeks (Reds), M Chapman (Brumbies), M Chisholm (Brumbies), B McCalman (Force), M Hodgson (Force), S Hoiles (Brumbies, co-capt).
Replacements: J Slipper (Reds) for Cowan h-t; P Hynes (Reds) for O'Connor 48; P McCutcheon (Waratahs) for Hodgson 52; K Douglas (Waratahs) for Chapman 54; D Fitzpatrick (Waratahs) for Edmonds 60; Chapman for Chisholm 65; Cowan for Hoiles 74.
England XV D Armitage (London Irish); M Banahan (Bath), M Tait (Sale), O Barkley (Bath), U Monye (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), R Wigglesworth (Sale); D Flatman (Bath), L Mears (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), D Attwood (Gloucester), G Parling (Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), H Fourie (Leeds), D Ward-Smith (Wasps).
Replacements: J Worsley (Wasps) for Fourie h-t; G Chuter (Leicester) for Mears 48; D Waldouck (Wasps) for Armitage 64; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Wigglesworth 64; P Doran-Jones (Gloucester) for Wilson 64; C Lawes (Northampton) for Attwood 70; S Geraghty (Northampton) for C Hodgson 77.
Referee S Dickinson (Australia).