England v Australia: Beware kick of the wounded Wallaby
This may be a non-vintage Australia side thrashed by France, but the red-rose camp know to take nothing for granted
Twickenham has played host to some wondrous Wallaby sides over recent decades, but the 2012ers are not among them. The tourists are missing too many world-class talents – James O'Connor, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, David Pocock – and are in too much turmoil behind the scenes to leave any meaningful mark on Australian rugby history. Whatever they achieve against England, they will never be bracketed with Ella, Lynagh, Campese and the rest of the 1984 Grand Slammers as one of the sport's transformative teams.
So why are England, developing more quickly than anyone had a right to expect under the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, and the captain, Chris Robshaw, feeling just a little anxious ahead of their first serious examination of the autumn series? Because however undercooked the visitors may be in important positions, they remain resourceful in the extreme. If Robshaw leaves the field with a double-figure victory margin under his belt, he will be ecstatic.
"Wallaby teams are always cagey and highly skilled," said Graham Rowntree, the red-rose forwards coach, during his eve-of-match ponderings. "You never know where the next threat is coming from when you play them. Yes, they lost heavily [33-6] against France in Paris last weekend and they'll be licking their wounds. But the scary thing from our point of view is that there were positives they could take from that performance irrespective of the scoreline. We'll have to be good in every area to beat them."
The area most obviously associated with Rowntree, who looks every inch the old-school prop he once was, is the set-piece – a department in which England have enjoyed a surfeit of success down the years. Jason Leonard, Phil Vickery, Trevor Woodman, Andrew Sheridan, Dan Cole… the list of white-shirted front-rowers who have had the pleasure of scrummaging the Wallabies into the back end of beyond is long indeed. For every retaliatory blow landed by the Australia forwards at close quarters, the English have dished out a dozen hidings.
Yet it is worth remembering that scrummaging superiority is no guarantee of success. Ask Cole, the current England tight-head prop. Together with his fellow grunt-and-groaners, he squeezed the Wallabies so hard in the second half of the 2010 Test in Perth that the Welsh referee Nigel Owens awarded two penalty tries. And what, pray, was the outcome of this red-rose assertion of set-piece power? A 10-point victory for Australia.
Conscious as he is of the danger of scrummaging for scrummaging's sake, Rowntree sees other perils ahead of this afternoon's close-quarter contest. "I don't actually buy into this perception that we always have the edge at the set-piece against the Wallabies," he said. "If you look at their front row, they have more than 100 caps to our 30-odd. If you look at their pack as a whole, they are three times as experienced in the ways of Test rugby. They've recalled Ben Alexander to their starting line-up and I regard him very highly as an international tight-head. I'm not confident… or rather, I'm not so presumptuous as to say we'll definitely out-scrum them."
Interestingly, the front row is the one area where these Wallabies can claim to be at full strength. Benn Robinson, the foursquare Sydneysider who anchors the Australia scrum from the loose-head position, knows what it is to shade England in the tight – together with Alexander he managed it in the Twickenham Test of 2009 – while Tatafu Polota-Nau, a tough hooker of Tongan heritage, has played well enough of late to force the excellent Stephen Moore on to the replacements' bench.
It is easy to see England shading it even so, especially if they scrum long on their own feed and prevent the Wallabies disengaging early and setting off in pursuit of the loose ball. But as the tourists' captain, Nathan Sharpe, pointed out yesterday, there is more to modern-day Test rugby than the 16-man grapple of blessed memory. If Robshaw and his fellow forwards fail to stack up at the line-out – very much an area of Australian expertise – any set-piece advantage will be nullified. The new England hooker, Tom Youngs, may have felt snugly comfortable against the uncompetitive Fiji on his Test debut a week ago, but he will not be given an armchair ride today.
This factor must have played a part in Lancaster's decision to stick with the tried and tested line-out expertise of Tom Palmer, rather than promote the fast-developing young Wasps lock Joe Launchbury to the starting combination.
Together, Palmer and the increasingly influential Geoff Parling have the capacity to gain parity with Sharpe and company, but the Wallabies rarely struggle in this phase of the game and can therefore expect a decent share of the primary possession.
History tells us that England rarely prevail over the Wallabies if honours are even up front. Clive Woodward's magnificent side managed to run rings around Eddie Jones's team in Melbourne in 2003, a few weeks before they laid hands on the World Cup, but that was a high watermark of red-rose creativity and very much an exception to the rule. Generally speaking, it is Australia who make things happen away from the arm-wrestle, and with the likes of Kurtley Beale and Berrick Barnes in their back-line today, there will be no shortage of invention.
Much depends on the New South Wales open-side flanker Michael Hooper, who must somehow find a means of keeping Australia alive at the breakdown in the way Pocock would have done had he been fit to participate. Pocock's expertise in securing turnover ball at the ruck is one of the wonders of this rugby age, as the Springboks found to their acute discomfort at least year's World Cup, and his absence will be keenly felt. But Hooper was in the starting line-up when the Wallabies drew their Bledisloe Cup Test with New Zealand in Brisbane last month and knows what it is to fight fire with fire.
"He's a very smart player," acknowledged Robshaw, who has spent a good deal of the week in front of the video, brushing up on his direct opponent's modus operandi. "I'm expecting a big battle at the breakdown," he said, "a battle that will go a long way to deciding the outcome." He was right about that much. England will need a captain's knock from their leader today.
For purely commercial reasons – the kind of reasons that can easily wear thin with a Twickenham audience paying £80 and upwards for a ticket – England will be barely recognisable in their change strip of "regal purple". But if, as Rowntree fears, the Wallaby scrummagers absorb all that is thrown at them and present Beale and Barnes with solid foundations on which to construct an attacking game, the home side may find themselves answering some all-too familiar questions.
"Twickenham is a tough place to win, but it's also a very satisfying place to win," Sharpe said, relishing the prospect of a final confrontation with the old country.
The grand old lock is the small matter of 113 caps into a decade-long Test career, and has arrived at the last knockings. Judging by the look on his face, he has every intention of knocking England into a cocked hat on his way out.
Pretty in purple: England's new kit
England will today wear a new purple shirt, which bears a remarkable resemblance to Arsenal's 2005-06 away kit, as worn by Thierry Henry. Worryingly for Stuart Lancaster's side, Arsenal passed that season trophyless to spark a barren run which is yet to be ended. England also launched a purple kit during the 2009 autumn internationals. Unfortunately that was the most exciting thing on offer for the Twickenham crowd as the home side won an error-strewn match against Argentina 16-9.
Mstery men: The unknown Wallabies
An out-an-out wing with bags of pace, he will be reassured by the presence of Berrick Barnes at full-back and the outstanding Digby Ioane on the other side of the field. All the same, it will be surprising if the Wallabies do not feel the loss of their injured opportunist-in-chief, James O'Connor.
A running scrum-half who relishes the physical stuff, he will be linking with his Melbourne Rebels colleague Kurtley Beale. Can he paper over the cracks left by the stricken Will Genia? That's another story. Phipps has plenty to say for himself on the field, but Genia is the man with the authority.
On the face of it, the Waratahs flanker has an unenviable task: David Pocock, out of this game with a calf injury, is often bracketed with the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw as the best No 7 around. But Hooper is nobody's fool. He may be the least of the Wallabies' problems.
Ref R Poite (Fr)
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