England have to turn on forward power to rebuild the 'fortress'

Pack can force victory over Australia today to end the southern hemisphere hoodoo
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The Independent Online

Margaret Thatcher's government put paid to the English mining industry a quarter of a century ago, but not even the Iron Lady found a way of consigning anthracite to the coal bunker of history.

This afternoon at Twickenham, the national rugby team will take the field in their new "away" strip – they may be playing at home, but no one cares about the fine detail when there is money to be made – and yes, the shirts will be the colour of smokeless fuel. This much is certain: Martin Johnson's team will have to organise one hell of a picket line to stop the Wallabies going to work.

England have not beaten a major southern hemisphere nation in London since 2006, and if they come up short today, they will have only one more opportunity – against the Springboks in a fortnight's time – ahead of next year's World Cup. It has been a thoroughly rotten run, and the Australians are in the mood to make it more rotten still. They have their first-choice front row available to them, their back division is nothing short of stellar, and they arrive with a touch of swagger, having beaten both New Zealand and Wales over the last couple of weeks.

Much has been said by successive England hierarchies about the importance of rebuilding the "Fortress Twickenham" mentality that was lost in the early months of 2004, when Ireland inflicted a first home defeat on the then world champions in almost five years, and the manager was at it again yesterday. "Of course Twickenham should give us an edge," Johnson said. "We don't want teams coming here looking forward to the match. We want to make it bloody difficult for them." Opponents have not found things too difficult in recent years. Fortress? Try "Wendy House" instead.

While a few green shoots of recovery were visible a week ago, when England finished sufficiently strongly against New Zealand to force some very experienced All Blacks – Keven Mealamu and Jerome Kaino, Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko – into uncharacteristic errors of judgement, Johnson was surely stretching a point in insisting that his players were perfectly capable of going toe to toe with the Australians in every area and aspect of the game. "We know we can play," he said defiantly when asked whether the red-rose backs could conceivably live with Quade Cooper, Matt Giteau and Kurtley Beale in the event of a zero-sum contest up front.

We shall see. Every last smidgen of evidence suggests that England can win this game in one way, and one way only: that is to say, by dominating the forward phases and trusting to luck that they do not mess up with ball in hand as spectacularly as they did on that knee-clenchingly embarrassing night in Perth five months ago. Unfortunately, the return of the influential Stephen Moore as the fulcrum of the Wallaby scrum makes dominance far more difficult to achieve than it might have been had the tourists been forced to stick with the courageous but terminally lightweight Saia Faingaa in the hooking position.

Having watched his pack pulverise a weakened, deeply compromised Wallaby pack in both Tests on the summer tour, Johnson acknowledged that Moore's return would make the tourists more competitive at the set piece. "Anyway, it's not often that you get real dominance at Test level," he said. "The best you can expect, generally speaking, is to get an edge. The Wallabies will win themselves some ball in this game. They struggled at the scrum in Wales last weekend when Moore dropped out just before kick-off, but you often find with top-class teams that when things go wrong in one area, they bounce back there in the next match. If we go into this thinking we just have to turn up to win the scrum contest, we'll end up losing it."

Johnson has grown weary of conversing in the language of defeat, of "trotting out the same old words", as he put it yesterday. "The players need to get used to Test match intensity, to the speed of the game when they meet opponents of this standard," he said. "I heard one of the players say after the New Zealand match last weekend: 'If I'd done that in the Premiership, I'd have scored'. That's the thing. At Test level, it wasn't good enough.

"Everything is ramped up when you play the All Blacks or the Wallabies and you have to get into the mode. Against New Zealand, we did some good things and created some opportunities, but we conceded 26 points, and 26 is too many. Quite simply, we didn't perform well enough for long enough. What we did might have been sufficient to beat some Test nations, but not the best Test nations."

Right now, it is possible to argue that Australia are the best of the best: some effort, given their continuing set-piece fragility and the pressure it places on their backs to fly in the face of all rugby orthodoxy by maximising their attacking game off a minimal supply of possession. They are helped in this regard by David Pocock, who will be formally recognised and publicly garlanded as the world's best open-side flanker the moment the New Zealand captain Richie McCaw stops being as brilliant as he is. This afternoon, Pocock will ask some serious questions of the England skipper, Lewis Moody. If Moody fails to answer them, Johnson will be forced to look as closely at his back-row options as he is looking at his popgun formation in midfield.

England can win this game, especially if the rain falls, and if they find a way of doing so, they will head into the remainder of the autumn programme in a positive frame of mind. But if they lose, November will be deemed a failure, even if they beat both Samoa and the Springboks. Johnson says he does not see this as a "pivotal" fixture, but he should do. Defeat would leave his side in the kind of pit commonly associated with the A-word. Anthracite.

Beware The Wallaby: Three famous Australian victories at Twickenham

England 3 Australia 19

November 1984

Inspired by Mark Ella, one of the great freethinkers in international rugby, Andrew Slack's seminal team Grand-Slammed their way round the British Isles, running in tries from everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. What was meant to be a new dawn for England turned into a black night of the soul.

England 6 Australia 12

November 1991

This World Cup final was meant to be a contest between England's forwards and the Wallaby backs, and had it turned out that way, the home side might well have won. Unfortunately, they discovered expansive rugby at precisely the wrong moment. One touch of genius from Tim Horan tipped it Australia's way.

England 11 Australia 12

November 1998

England's prince of centres, Jeremy Guscott, scored the only try of an exceptionally tight game, but John Eales, the king of locks and one of the finest half-dozen players in rugby history, did everything else better than everyone else and ended up kicking four penalties to pinch the spoils.

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