Autumn internationals: England need to win the mental fight to beat Australia...
...and enacting Andy Farrell's three-point plan could do the trick at Twickenham
Ten years on from that World Cup-winning night of nights in Sydney, precious little has changed in Anglo-Australian rugby relations. England have yet to discover a second method of winning a Test match between the two countries – they either smithereen their opponents up front or they lose – while the Wallabies, however weak they might seem on paper, have a nasty habit of appearing a whole lot stronger in the flesh.
All of which makes this afternoon's meeting at Twickenham something to savour, for if England are to make good on their claims of progress over the last 20 months or so – if they are not to begin this "defining year" of theirs with an all-too-definite credibility problem – they really cannot afford to finish second to a weak touring side currently running on a 28 per cent success rate. They start as favourites, just as Martin Johnson's team did at the Olympic Stadium in 2003, and while the pressure on them to live up to the billing is not quite as great, it still weighs a ton.
So much depends on the level of control placed on proceedings by the rival No 10s: Owen Farrell of England, Quade Cooper of Australia. They are not exactly peas from the same pod: Farrell is as tough as old boots, the warrior spirit of a functional team constructed at least partly in his own image; Cooper is the polar opposite with his conjuror's skill-set and devil-may-care attitude. Both men will face a good deal of heat; only one will withstand it successfully.
It should be remembered that the Australians who made it to the World Cup final a decade ago were as surprised by their achievement as the recalled Cooper was to be made vice-captain of this latest vintage. Yet that '03 side took England – not any old England, but the best red rose combination in almost a quarter of a century – all the way to the last minute of extra time before conceding defeat, and they might even have won had Stephen Larkham, their supremely intelligent outside-half, played the whole game.
How come? How did those Australians, with a powder-puff front row and a scratchy back three and a less than frightening combination at lock, manage to scare the wits out of a team armed with Johnson, Jason Robinson, Will Greenwood, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson, Phil Vickery and the holy back-row trinity of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio? In short, it was all in the mind – and if this latest England team are to make the most of home advantage in the 2015 World Cup, they know they must raise their game in the top two inches.
Andy Farrell, father of Owen and the current England backs coach and defence specialist, agrees that the two most consistently successful sporting teams on the planet are the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australian rugby league Kangaroos. He has direct experience of both, having either played or plotted against them, and he believes there is a common denominator. Three common denominators, in fact.
"Firstly," he said, "there is what I call 'intent'. Those teams have a mental hardness about them, a way of getting the emotional side of their game absolutely right. Then there's concentration – their ability to stay focused throughout the 80 minutes. Finally, there's a calmness about their execution. They rarely become flustered under pressure."
The last time a full-strength England team took the field in anger, on Grand Slam day in Cardiff back in March, each of those crucial virtues was conspicuous by its absence. Wales operated at a higher emotional pitch from the kick-off, they were never once deflected from their purpose and they played precision rugby whenever a scoring chance arose. Virtually every senior red rose figure, from the head coach Stuart Lancaster to the Northampton flanker Tom Wood, has used the phrase "hard lesson" in discussing those events this week.
Tipped by some for the England captaincy but happy to serve as Chris Robshaw's principal lieutenant – "When all that was being talked about, I phoned Chris and said: 'Let's not get caught up in this for a single second. You know you have my complete support if you're named skipper,'" he mentioned in passing – Wood recognises the importance of cold analysis on the hoof, however hot the battle might be.
"Take the breakdown," he said. "Part of it is getting your head in there where it hurts, as hard and fast as you can. But there's also a skill involved, and more than anything it's a decision-making process. Can you make a difference by going into the tackle area? Or is it a lost cause? Are you going to be a wasted bullet? If you go in there and you're a wasted bullet, you're leaving people short in the defensive line – hanging them out to dry, facing a two-on-one.
"Against Wales, we were caught out by their emotional charge, and when that happens it's difficult to turn the momentum round. When things don't go to plan and you're on the back foot; when you're soaking up tackles and there's wave after wave…it's very hard to stem. That's when you need to bring out that level of intensity in yourselves and force a game-changing moment – a big tackle, a fierce ruck clearance and a turnover. It's about emotional energy as much as physical energy."
Australia are masters of generating the level of intensity Wood described and if they detect even a whiff of English softness this afternoon, the high-class forwards in their pack – the veteran hooker Stephen Moore, the bright young flanker Michael Hooper, the bitterly competitive lock James Horwill, the late-flowering new captain Ben Mowen – will grow in stature before our very eyes. And then watch out. Cooper, Will Genia, Tevita Kuridrani and Israel Folau will need no second invitation to run riot.
Farrell, such an authoritative voice in this red rose set-up, thinks England's new combinations – at lock, in midfield and in the back three – are ready to step up. If he is right, and the likes of Billy Twelvetrees at inside centre and Marland Yarde on the left wing bring the best of themselves to the occasion, there will be rich potential for a highly significant victory. If England are off their game for any prolonged spell, Twickenham will be shrouded in doom and gloom.
Australia are under new management, Ewen McKenzie replaced Robbie Deans at the end of the Lions tour, and there have been some teething problems. But transformations happen more quickly Down Under than up here. In 1989, when the Wallabies last lost a Lions series, they stripped their team bare, fast-tracked a fresh generation and, two years later, beat England at Twickenham to win the World Cup. McKenzie will remember that better than most. After all, he was a key part of the side.
Sibling success in different sports
Joel and Sam Tomkins
Joel makes his England union debut today while his brother, Sam, will represent his country against Ireland in the Rugby League World Cup at the same time.
Gary, Phil and Tracey Neville
Brothers Gary and Phil played football for England, while sister Tracey represented her country at netball, winning bronze at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
Leslie and Denis Compton
Denis played Test cricket for England (and football for Arsenal), while his brother Leslie played football for England (and Arsenal) and as wicketkeeper for Middlesex.
Theo and Hollie Walcott
Arsenal midfielder Theo has won 36 England caps while elder sister, Hollie, is a bodybuilder who came second in the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation Central Championships in 2010.
Mark and Dan McGwire
While not achieving international honours baseball player Mark broke the record for home runs in a season by a rookie, while brother Dan was a quarterback for Seattle and Miami in the NFL.
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