England 26-17 Australia: Stuart Lancaster’s removers call tune against the virtuosi

Relief all round as forward power tells against Australian running and passing

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England remain gruesomely out of tune when it comes to the piano-playing part of international rugby: if the Wallabies are the union’s code’s version of Glenn Gould in full imaginative flight, Stuart Lancaster’s team are down among the Les Dawsons.

But as not even South Africa at their most coercive can be sure of matching them in the piano-shifting department, the red-rose forwards are beginning to scare people, just as they did under Martin Johnson – the player, not the manager – during the Noughties.

Australia, as is their wont, completed 200 passes at Twickenham on Saturday, and were off target with a fair few more. England did not manage a third of that total: indeed, the tourists probably dropped as many passes, some of them of the try-scoring variety, as their hosts attempted. But there is more to winning Test matches than pinging the ball around the park and while the Wallabies’ attacking game occasionally touched heights that might reasonably be described as Himalayan – when Kurtley Beale appeared off the bench, he immediately found offloading angles previously unknown to geometry – they were overmatched in the earthier aspects of the contest.


For Lancaster, the head coach, and his captain, the outstanding Chris Robshaw, the 26-17 victory was delivered bang on cue. Both men spoke afterwards of the discomforts they had endured in the week leading into the final match of an unusually testing autumn series and while they stayed on-script by insisting that the “belief”, the “culture” and all the other abstractions and indefinables had remained solid over the course of an intensely pressurised build-up, every sentence they uttered spoke of an overwhelming sense of relief.

“We did what we had to do for the good of the side,” Robshaw said. “We were stretched and tested by the Wallabies, who are so good at keeping the ball alive, but we simplified our own game to deal with it and, while we stuttered at times, we’ll be stronger for having this experience behind us. Not everything is smelling of roses, but we know now that we’re not going to crumble if we lose a couple of games – that we have the ability to find solutions.

“Not that we can afford to lose twice at next year’s World Cup. Do that, and we’ll be packing our bags and watching the rest of it on the telly.”

Lancaster, as much a study in impassivity as his team had been in passlessness, was keen to point out that defeat by Australia “would not have been the Doomsday scenario you guys might have thought it was”, but he also confessed that the accumulated hassle of losing narrowly to the All Blacks and the Springboks had weighed heavily upon him. “If I had the choice, I wouldn’t want to put myself in that position again,” he muttered, tellingly.


But as he heads back to the bunker for a month or so of deep reflection, during which he will decide whether to blood another couple of youngsters during the forthcoming Six Nations – two Exeter players, the midfielder Henry Slade and the hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, are at the head of this particular queue – he can rest easy in the knowledge that he has a pack capable of squeezing the pips out of all-comers when the global tournament lands on these shores. The Wallabies know it too, which is why they are not quite as confident as they were of beating both England and Wales to top spot in the “pool of not feeling terribly well”.

When Robshaw said on Saturday night that his tight-five forwards had “got us out of trouble”, he meant it. If there was anyone in the capacity crowd of 82,000-plus who left for home under the delusion that England could possibly have won without establishing complete close-quarter supremacy over the Wallabies, they might as well join the Flat Earth Society and have done with it. Any notion of the red-rose back division outrunning and outhandling the tourists was for the birds.

Perhaps the most creative act performed by a man in a white shirt came as early as the seventh minute, when the recalled centre Billy Twelvetrees found his partner Brad Barritt with a perfectly judged long, looped pass off the left hand – a bold piece of high-risk distribution that might have had its reward had Anthony Watson not frittered it away with an uncharacteristic fumble. But Twelvetrees was unnervingly quiet thereafter, and as he was sorely tested defensively by his eye-catching opposite number Matt Toomua, he finished well short of making himself undroppable from the No 12 role.


He would probably feel happier with life had he showcased his gifts as a tactical kicker, but George Ford, already beginning to look undroppable from the No 10 position, was happy to take responsibility for the territorial management duties. As there were decent additional contributions in this department from the scrum-half Ben Youngs and the full-back Mike Brown, both of whom ended the series in a happier place than they started it, the spine of the side is beginning to stabilise.

Ben Morgan is also playing his part in that process and his twin strikes from No 8 – the first a clattering effort from Tom Wood’s short pass, the second an old-fashioned rumble from a surging scrum – will work wonders for his confidence. England are not obviously in a position to create the kind of knife-through-butter score that fell to Bernard Foley four minutes into the second half, but as far as the scoreboard is concerned, there is no difference between a try from the heavens and one from the shop floor.

In the end, Lancaster summed things up in six single-syllable words. After informing a questioner that England could, had they so wished, have attempted to move the ball wide from the set pieces and attempted to score through their wings, he paused for a second and then added: “But why would we do that?” Given the gulf separating his forwards from his backs, you could see the coach’s point.