England vs Australia: Brian Smith - Don’t fret, the Aussies aren’t feeling too free and easy right now either

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The Independent Online

So England are on the point of heading out of the World Cup: the first host nation in the tournament’s history not to find a way into the knock-out stage. Really? It’s perfectly possible that things will turn out badly for Stuart Lancaster’s team tonight and it will be one hell of a painful experience, with all manner of ramifications, if it happens. But speaking as a good Australian, I can tell you that the Wallabies aren’t feeling too free and easy about life either. This is super-tense for both sides.

You can sense something of the Australian mood in the fact that Quade Cooper is nowhere to be seen. He was exceptional against Uruguay last week, but Quade being Quade, he’s not suited to the pointy end of the game right now – not trusted to make the percentage call at the delicate moment. Sad as it may be, he hasn’t even made the bench for tonight’s game.

That being the case, I ask you this: leaving aside the brilliant things Cooper brought to the Wallaby game six days ago, what have we seen from this team except some strong-arm stuff on the line-out drive and a big defence? To my eye, they’re morphing into England, and if they lose playing that kind of rugby, it won’t be well received by the union folk here in Sydney. Winning ugly is forgivable. Losing ugly? That’s a different thing entirely.

At the risk of sounding as miserable as sin, I can’t see this game being a thriller. More a rock’n’roll wrestling match, with the result coming down to goal-kicking. If I’m right, you have to back Owen Farrell to do the job. If Dan Biggar hadn’t had such a golden night with the boot for Wales, Farrell would have been the man. He didn’t look like missing, and I don’t expect him to miss much on Saturday night.

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Michael Cheika and his positive effect on the Wallabies since he took over as coach a year ago, but I believe the defeat at Twickenham last November scarred him and has led to him going a little conservative on us. Look at the wing selection. Adam Ashley-Cooper and Rob Horne are dependable, honest-to-goodness types who never let you down, but when you look at the other options among the outside backs – Henry Speight, Joe Tomane, Kurtley Beale – there’s a lot more sizzle elsewhere. 

Michael should have said to himself weeks ago: “To win a World Cup, I need a Speight or a Tomane to be finishing things for me out wide.” He should then have picked the player of his choice and stuck with him through the back end of the southern hemisphere season. Instead, he’s gone for the safety-first guys. If any wings are going to light up this game, it’s more likely to be Anthony Watson and Jonny May. And they’ll be wearing white.

Another guy missing from the Wallaby starting combination is Matt Toomua, a versatile midfielder who has given England all the grief they can handle over the last couple of years. However, I have less of a problem here. Like Christian Leali’ifano, another star Brumbies back who didn’t even make the squad, Toomua is a handful: he can kick, carry, pass, belt you hard in the tackle, shift between inside centre and outside-half without worrying himself stupid about it…basically, he covers all the bases. Which is rare indeed.

But when you have someone as lavishly blessed as Matt Giteau available, it’s hard to go against him. Michael has been clever in this area, bringing back Matt, the lock Dean Mumm and the wing Drew Mitchell from European club rugby and putting them in leadership roles. They understand how things operate north of the Equator, they can read the referees and they know how to pass on their experience. There will have been a long, hard debate about the choice at No 12, but Giteau has stood up in major finals for Toulon and helped his team grind out horrible victories when the heat is on.

Talking of which, there have been some horrible sights at the scrum in England-Australia matches down the years, with the Wallabies being the ones on the receiving end almost exclusively. It might be a more even contest this time. They’re a better set-piece unit now and it’s also worth pointing out that this England front row is not quite the luxury liner unit of old. Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole at their best? That really was a Fab Three. The latest model is a dumbed-down version, if I’m frank.

Winning ugly is forgivable. Losing ugly? That’s a different thing entirely

Brian Smith, former England attack coach

Once again, though, the Australians will be feeling a little fraught. Romain Poite, the referee, has a track record of rewarding the dominant scrum – French officials in general are strong on this point – and he has given the Wallabies a hard time at the set-piece in years gone by. The visitors have finally cottoned on to the English approach of scrumming for penalties and about time too – it’s only taken them a decade! Whether they will be proficient enough at close quarters to do anything meaningful about it is another question.

It will be a proper contest: in fact, there is every chance of it being more intense than last week’s England-Wales game. But having argued for some time that nobody will get out of the “pool of death” unscathed – that none of the three main contenders will go unbeaten – I’ll stick to my guns. England, in win-or-bust mode, have the bite and the drive to win. Just.  

Brian Smith was England’s attack coach at the 2011 World Cup