The picture on the television screens in the hospitality boxes settled repeatedly on Danny Cipriani, the stubble-chinned England fly-half, and Martin Johnson, the black-haired manager with the world-renowned beetle brow. Their looks matched their mood: darker, still and darker.
The Australians were in concert, too, forwards and backs high-fiving each other when England's last thrust was repelled. By then Cipriani was off the field, nursing a sore ankle and hurt pride. The hurried comeback of the putative golden child of Johnson's new generation began staggering to a halt about an hour into a gripping battle which became a vengeful Wallaby win.
England were trailing and looking troubled as Cipriani hopped and flexed his right ankle, stamping his foot into the turf. "It got banged twice on the metal bit, I just needed to jump it off when I get knocked on it," he said. After 71 minutes he was replaced by Toby Flood. This was Cipriani's seventh start since he returned on 1 October, six weeks ahead of schedule following an ugly injury last spring, and it wasn't only the argument with the ironmongery which went awry.
Neither Johnson nor Cipriani made any bones – pinned together or otherwise – about England's lack of cohesion. Nick Easter and Danny Care, the No 8 and scrum-half, play together for Harlequins and they ran rapidly from tapped free-kicks and around the fringes with an umbilical understanding. Too often, though, they were on FM while Cipriani was stuck on a medium wave. England will only prosper when this and many other combinations gel. At the scrum, as the front rows hit the deck time and again, we saw a frustrated "Cips", hands on hips. "We're a new side and it's a massive learning curve," said Cipriani. "There's a certain structure and we need to stick to it."
Cipriani had spent his summer mending and waiting, sprinting and weight training. Though he insisted his ankle was "fine", he would surely have liked different preparation for the biggest test of his five-cap career. Cipriani's opposite number was Matt Giteau, the gifted and versatile 26-year-old. Giteau spent his summer playing six times against South Africa and New Zealand in the Tri-Nations. Where he was 63 caps ago in 2002, making his Test debut in this very fixture, Cipriani stands now.
Each fly-half made one clean break in the first half. Giteau anticipated a line-out overthrow and made 40 metres. Cipriani glided between the Australian locks. He did it again in the opening stages of the second half and then, after the forwards re-set the position, snapped an awful drop-goal attempt wide. Nothing hurts a No 10 like a wrong option – mentally, at least. "I did a few things that were inconsistent," he said.
Two missed kicks in the first half and a vertical garryowen drew wider moans. On the other hand, Cipriani stood up well with a penalty goal when England needed it a minute before half-time (Giteau missed immediately after) and another in the 52nd minute, soon after the misplaced drop. That made it 14-12 to England; Giteau's next kick retook the lead.
Tired body, tired mind? Cipriani was obliged by the laws to kick infield when England threw the ball into their 22, (the crowd groaned nonetheless) and the Wallabies ran it back to earn another penalty, converted by Giteau for 18-14. Another weak kick by Cipriani from his in-goal area invited another Australian counter; Giteau, brilliantly, flicked an awful pass off the floor and Adam Ashley-Cooper scored.
The Western Force shelled out about two million quid to sign Giteau in 2006. Cipriani's stock was not exactly wiped out yesterday but the gold standard prevailed. "We've learned a lesson of how to close out a game and be together as a team," he said. And South Africa next Saturday? "Playing the world champions, there won't be as much room for mistakes."Reuse content