Johnson damned by England's lack of bite

England 9 Australia 18
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The Independent Online

Even in the ages of greatest uncertainty, visiting teams could confidently expect two things from the Twickenham experience: a programme of pre-match entertainment guaranteed to reduce right-thinking folk to a state of knee-clenching embarrassment and, during the game itself, a ferocious scrap with a pug-ugly England pack. The Rugby Football Union lived down to its standards on the first count at the weekend – dancers dressed as zebras (how very London), a woman attached to a hot air balloon, "Land of Hope and Glory" – but no one delivered on the second part of the deal as Martin Johnson's team slid miserably to a sixth successive defeat at the hands of a SANZAR nation.

When Johnson himself was an integral part of a growling unit featuring the likes of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio – ah, those blissful days of yore – England's opponents were always left with an overpowering sense of having been in a contest. The enemy might occasionally have won, but their losses in the forward exchanges tended to be so heavy that the word "pyrrhic" could often be seen accompanying the word "victory".

Had the manager, or indeed any of that vintage loose unit, been listening to the Wallaby captain, Rocky Elsom, after Saturday's proceedings, they would have turned a very funny colour and pushed off home to mourn in private. Asked about the many and varied penalties awarded against his side by the referee, Bryce Lawrence, during the opening half-hour, the tough-nut flanker from Melbourne, replied: "As we never felt England were going to score, we didn't feel the need to do anything special at the tackle area that might give us an advantage. We felt able to pull away from it a little, to pull back." Pull away? Pull back? As indictments go, this was in the Geoffrey Howe-Margaret Thatcher class.

In Test rugby, teams giving less than the whole of themselves in any department are meant to finish a very distant second. Here, Elsom and his fellow Australians were able to give of themselves in bits and pieces and still win going away. It was as if Ricky Ponting had scored an Ashes century and then confessed: "Actually, the bowling was so God-awful, there was no point watching more than one ball in six."

Strange to relate, two of those charged with performing the dark deeds long associated with the Hill-Back-Dallaglio axis, the Leicester flankers, Tom Croft and Lewis Moody, were among England's more effective individuals, as was Jonny Wilkinson, a flanker in outside-half's clothing if ever there was one. But Steve Borthwick's early brilliance at the line-out notwithstanding, the England pack never found the best of its collective self.

The possession they produced was not so much slow as posthumous, and as red-rose back divisions of recent vintage have found it difficult to threaten opposition goal lines when presented with ball faster than the speed of light, their chances of scoring a try under these circumstances were close to non-existent.

Johnson felt his side "lost urgency and intensity" in an important passage leading up to the interval, but in truth, there was little of either during England's period of territorial domination – a spell that yielded only two penalties and a drop goal to the deeply committed Wilkinson, who could barely be faulted in any respect on his return to national colours. Indeed, the tempo of the game was so slow and the home team's attacking work so troll-like, the Wallabies moved more quickly running down the tunnel at half-time than they had been forced to do at any point during the previous 40 minutes. Following the break, the tourists decided to crack on with winning the game.

They had already found a way across England's line, the impressive new half-back Will Genia nipping over from close range while Louis Deacon was looking at every Australian runner except the one running with the ball, and in the third quarter, they created enough further opportunities to secure victory a dozen times over. Eventually, Adam Ashley-Cooper made it to the left corner, Mark Cueto and Ugo Monye flapping hopelessly at the deceptively powerful full-back as he ploughed towards the flag. Matt Giteau – some player, it has to be said – banged over the conversion from a wide angle to put his side more than a full score ahead, and that was that.

So it was that for the second time in a year, the Wallaby coach Robbie Deans was able to hold court at Twickenham with a beatific smile of satisfaction on his face. "I didn't feel we were ever really stretched," he remarked, damningly. "I'm not saying we've got it completely sorted up front; I'm not sure the tight-forward foundations are ever fully laid, because in that area, you get belted if you're half a heartbeat off your game. But we've shown twice at Twickenham that we can be competitive at the business end and when we get parity there against England, we know we have the capacity to play."

In other words, the only thing Australia feel they need to beat the old country all ends up is a half-decent share of possession. Like Continental footballers who believe – nay, know – that their skill set is infinitely greater than that of their English counterparts, the Wallabies spent virtually the entirety of this game in a happy place. In Genia and Giteau, in Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane, in Peter Hynes and Drew Mitchell and the accomplished Ashley-Cooper, they had players who looked comfortable on the ball.

Afterwards, Johnson trotted out the hoary old line about people playing their first game together against a team toughened and unified by recent Tri-Nations activity. Of course, when the boot is on the other foot – when England head south every June and find themselves splattered all over Australia, New Zealand or South Africa – the explanation is rather different. It's called having it both ways, and it is beginning to stick in the craw.

England: Penalties Wilkinson 2; Drop goal Wilkinson. Australia: Tries Genia, Ashley-Cooper; Conversion Giteau; Penalties Giteau 2.

England: U Monye (Harlequins); M Cueto (Sale), D Hipkiss (Leicester), S Geraghty (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), J Crane (Leicester). Replacements: J Haskell (Stade Français) for Crane 53; D Hartley (Northampton) for Thompson 56; D Bell (Bath) for Wilson 59; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Care 61; A Erinle (Biarritz) for Hipkiss 70; C Lawes (Northampton) for Deacon 72.

Australia: A Ashley-Cooper (ACT); P Hynes (Queensland), D Ioane (Queensland), Q Cooper (Queensland), D Mitchell (New South Wales); M Giteau (ACT), W Genia (Queensland); B Robinson (New South Wales), S Moore (ACT), B Alexander (ACT), J Horwill (Queensland), M Chisholm (ACT), R Elsom (ACT, capt), G Smith (ACT), W Palu (New South Wales). Replacements: T Polota Nau (New South Wales) for Moore 61; R Cross (Western Force) for Ioane 70; D Pocock (Western Force) for Palu 72; D Mumm (New South Wales) for Chisholm 76; M Dunning (Western Force) for Alexander 81.

Referee: B Lawrence (New Zealand).

Report card How England's rookies fared at Twickenham

*Matt Banahan

Dangerous in the air. Jonny Wilkinson's cross-kicking bore fruit as the former second-row forward used his physical presence to threaten the Wallaby defenders. Unfortunately, the Bath player was less threatening on terra firma, where wings spend most of their time. He has much left to prove.

*Shane Geraghty

Many of the things attempted by the inside centre failed to come off, but at least he had the confidence to try them in the first place. He was both vocal and insistent, demanding the ball even when Wilkinson was also available. Their partnership will surely develop, given a little time and patience.

*David Wilson

Some of the prop's tackling was straight out of the Phil Vickery big-hit manual: the way the Wallaby No 8 Wycliff Palu played in the heavy traffic, England needed as much Wilson as they could get. He contributed at the scrum, too, but his early departure with injury was frustrating.

*Jordan Crane

The suspicion that Leicester's No 8 is too one-paced for Test rugby refuses to go away. Crane is a tough cookie and when he tackles opponents, they stay tackled. But judged against Palu, he was second best. Certainly, his back-row partners, Tom Croft and Lewis Moody, caught the eye more.