Another Test match in Wallaby country, another defeat. For much of yesterday's contest at the Subiaco Oval, the crowd found themselves wondering whether there was any beginning to England's talents.
This was not quite fair. Martin Johnson's team can scrummage, and scrummage well – especially against a rival front row so far short of international class that a half-decent Premiership second-string would bend them double at the set-piece. The tourists' supremacy in the darkened recesses earned them two pen-alty tries. But they achieved nothing else. Depressing? Yes, and then some.
The Wallabies were so spellbindingly poor in the tight that for all their brilliance elsewhere – tainted brilliance, given their regular handling errors, but brilliance all the same – they might have finished this most peculiar match in the runners-up position. Fourteen points adrift at the interval, England turned the scrummaging screw so effectively in the second half that they found their way back to 14-10 and 21-17. Australia needed penalties from James O'Connor and Quade Cooper (pictured right), two players infinitely more gifted than any red-rose runner, to seal the deal.
It had seemed very different at the start as the Wallaby backs – shorn of players as good as Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and the sensational young scrum-half Will Genia – ran rings round their opponents. Indeed, there were so many rings encircling England that they looked uncannily like the planet Saturn, the only difference being that they appeared half as bright and moved twice as slowly. Time and again in the opening quarter the Australians burned the tourists in open field only to mess up within metres of the line or founder against some desperate last-ditch tackling.
This spell of profligacy, a period of grace as far as England were concerned, could not last. Eighteen minutes in, Drew Mitchell ran a long kick out of defence and made enough ground to force Ben Foden into a full-back's hit a good 60 metres upfield. The Wallabies moved the ball left and then right, freeing up space for the exceptional O'Connor to link with Mitchell and create the opening try for the captain, Rocky Elsom.
O'Connor, the tormentor when England drew their midweek match with the Australian Barbarians, hit the spot with his touchline conversion, which was more than Toby Flood managed with his first shot 10 minutes later. Worse, far worse, was to come. When Elsom pinched English line-out ball just past the half-hour, Luke Burgess beat the anonymous midfield debutant Shontayne Hape before spinning through 180 degrees and feeding Cooper for a score at the sticks. O'Connor again added the extras.
By this time, England had missed more than 20 tackles – a horror-show figure, although one that was made, by Mark Cueto on Berrick Barnes, earned a citing for being (allegedly) dangerous. By contrast, the Wallabies had fallen off one. The tourists were equally poor in possession, despite leaving the callow Australian scrummagers in shallow graves at virtually every set-piece. Nick Easter's inability to capitalise from No 8 bordered on the embarrassing and there were precious few signs of clear-minded decision-making from Danny Care. Worryinglyfor the Harlequins scrum-half, there was a sharp improvement once the button-bright Ben Youngs was summoned from the bench.
Fortunate not to have been 25 points adrift at the interval, England produced rather more in the second period. The front-row contest grew heated but the nature of it did not change: Dan Cole, the Leicester tight-head, made such a mess of the Wallaby first-timer Ben Daley that the tourists knew they would score if they could just find themselves a foothold in the Wallaby 22. Sure enough, Foden and Chris Ashton performed this service midway through the third quarter and after a flurry of scrum offences the Welsh referee, Nigel Owens, awarded a penalty try, converted by Flood.
The Wallabies responded imaginatively, Cooper flinging a wide pass to Digby Ioane from one of his side's few semi-stable scrums and finding his way on to his wing's shoulder to scoop up a scoring pop-pass. O'Connor's third conversion gave the Australians an 11-point lead that seemed sufficient in light of England's inability to play effective catch-up rugby, but when Owens sent the outclassed prop Salesi Ma'afu to the sin-bin and then awarded a second penalty try for good measure, there was a faint glimmer.
However, it was extinguished as the Wallabies commandeered the lion's share of possession at the last knockings, thereby teaching England a hard lesson. Even at their most vulnerable, a team of thoroughbreds will always beat a collection of one-trick ponies.
Man for man: Australia
James O'connor 8/10
Might have been annoyed not to be the youngest-looking bloke on the field by the end – the full-back looks 15 but James Slipper, the sub prop, could pass for a very big five. Of course, however old he looks, this chap is also very good. Strong, too.
Digby Ioane 6/10
A little less sophisticated than Mitchell, who might not drop the kind of kick Ioane did, awarding England – the horror, the horror – a scrum. Got away with it. Nice offload for Cooper's second try.
Rob Horne 7/10
Your "strong and direct" Test centre – meaning, thighs the size of buses and biceps as big as Bournemouth. This one had a rather more subtle touch than his oppo, though.
Berrick Barnes 7/10
Some clever, sliding kicks and link play that Hape would have been happy to have had the chance to do. Australia's centres made stuff for quick men outside or big buggers inside. England's didn't.
Drew Mitchell 7/10
Laid Moody out inadvertently and made a number of dangerous breaks including the one that led, eventually, to Elsom's try. Had much more fun, and many more opportunities to have it, than either England wing.
Quade Cooper 8/10
Man of the match. Scored his first try at a low-slung glide, his second from an offload from Ioane. He'd set that one up, however, with a long and looping – and ever so slightly forward? – pass. Spends a lot of time jumping about in front of the tackler like a sevens player. The answer is to bosh first, ask questions later. England didn't figure that out.
Luke Burgess 7/10
Pretty good game, keeping Will Genia on the bench, and a nice if slightly unorthodox pass to Cooper for the second try. Appeared a couple of years ago looking lithe and athletic, since when he's bulked up and, accordingly, shaved his head. They're like that, the rugby players.
Ben Daley 3/10
Where to start with the Aussie front row? With the haunted look that covered this poor lad's face in the second half, perhaps. His tormentor, Cole, only has six caps himself but the Englishman did to the debutant what Tony Greig couldn't do to the West Indies – made him grovel. An extra mark, though, for sticking at it.
Saia Faingaa 3/10
Also gets an extra mark, because his line-outs stood up while he partook of the communal hammering at the scrum. Thompson looked like a man-eating ogre next to this lad, and behaved like one.
Salesi Ma'afu 2/10
A horrible, horrible evening featuring close acquaintance with his own bottom and too many amusing words from the referee to count. "They were driving, you went down," was the easiest to understand, a sort of 'How Not to Scrummage 101' for anyone unfamiliar with rugby's most troglodytic ritual. Yellow card was inevitable, the only wonder being it took so long.
Dean Mumm 6/10
A couple of instances of what Englishmen of a certain vintage call "Rodber hands" – a big, hard lad out in the backs seeing the ball ricochet to the floor off his outstretched mitts. Otherwise, like said good old England flanker, very solid.
Nathan Sharpe 7/10
Good line-out work from the oldest bloke on the team, the only survivor of 2003 and all that. Less likely than Mumm to drop the ball when a back fired it at him but also, as a good old-fashioned grunt, less likely to have a back firing the ball at him in the first place.
Rocky Elsom 7/10
Proper player. Try-scorer, on the end of a this-way-then-that attack; hard worker; slam-tackler; patient player of 'Listen with Father' whenever Nigel Owens had a word with his props. Which was often.
David Pocock 7/10
Very proper player. Built like a cube, which helped him get lower than Moody at various breakdowns. If Simon Poidevin had been a pro, he'd have been David Pocock.
Richard Brown 7/10
Had to take a breather after Ma'afu's yellow card and might have welcomed it. Lots of hard work, of course, on a difficult night for his pack.
James Slipper On for Daley and into a seven-man scrum. Not fun. Mark Chisholm On for Mumm. Kurtley Beale On for O'Connor. Matt Hodgson On for Pocock. Huia Edmonds On for Faingaa.
Man for man: England
Ben Foden 6/10
Spent most of the first half on his bottom and parts of the second looking dangerous, setting up the first try with a good break. Solid in defence too, stopping a couple of breaks with head-on tackles.
Mark Cueto 5/10
As usual, spent time kicking the leather off the ball when he should have been running the leather off his boots. Video sessions might prove uncomfortable when it comes to Cooper's second try and the part played in it by Ioane, his opposite number.
Mike Tindall 5/10
Cut the back of his head, giving himself a kind of blood mullet. Nice. That would have happened when he had his head down and was giving it his all. One break might have led to a try for a younger, faster centre. Tait, say.
Shontayne Hape 5/10
In English rugby the offload, of which this chap is deemed a master, has acquired a kind of mythic status. In Australia, as the Wallabies showed again and again, it's just something you do when you need to. Hape's demonstrations of the not-so-fine art were scarce and prosaic by comparison.
Chris Ashton 6/10
Good strength and speed and tackled back well, once superbly to stop Mitchell scoring at the corner. The Wallaby, however, caught him on the hop to set up the first try. Learning as he goes.
Toby Flood 5/10
Tried a Wilkinson-esque show and break off his inside foot a fair few times, and took a fair few hammerings. Looked a bit slow to be trying that kind of thing and when he looked up and tried to go wide, the line was usually cluttered with forwards. A difficult night.
Danny Care 5/10
Not much fun in the first half, which was partly because he was given a rocky ride even behind such a dominant scrum – Elsom was able to get to him and muck things up. When Croft sorted that out and England picked up their game in the second half, the Quin started to come into things.
Tim Payne 7/10
Looked a little peeved to be replaced with 20 to go – naturally. Can't have enjoyed a feeding frenzy like this since some school fixture or other against a poor, out-matched set of wheezy kids from the comp down the road.
Steve Thompson 6/10
Loses a mark as his Wallaby prey gained one – the line-out wasn't perfect. The scrum was a different story, of course. By the end he was picking bits of Faingaa out of his pleasingly scraggy new beard.
Dan Cole 7/10
Almost gets an extra mark as England's man of the match – what he did to Daley has been well documented but he also offered more than his mates around the field, once driving, surprisingly quickly, to within a couple of inches of an actual try. As opposed to helping earn yet another penalty try.
Simon Shaw 6/10
Must have lost count of the number of tour matches, since South Africa in 1994, in which he's steamed away, hard at it, only to see the suspiciously tanned blokes in gold, green or black shirts run in two or three tries 'for fun', as the football pundits have it.
Tom Palmer 6/10
Seemed to cede most of the line-out work to Croft and was relatively anonymous – of course in a hard-working way – around the field.
Tom Croft 6/10
England's only Tri-Nations-style forward, which means that as well as doing all the 'dog' he has strong hands and a 'strike range' around the field – wherever the game is, he's either right there or on the end of the subsequent phase. Not his best game, featuring a couple of knock-ons, but line-outs were good.
Lewis Moody 6/10
Totally committed, in the 'ought to be' sense of the word, and captain on his 32nd birthday. Won't remember much after cabbaging himself tackling Mitchell. Won't want to remember anyway – Pocock had the better of him.
Nick Easter 5/10
Looked a little lumbering at the back of the scrum, to say the least. Cool under pressure in defence, most of the time.
Ben Youngs On for Care for an impressive 20 minutes. Courtney Lawes On for Shaw. James Haskell On for Moody. David Wilson On for Payne. George Chuter On for Thompson. Jonny Wilkinson On for Tindall. Mathew Tait On for Flood.