Johnson earns deliverance from autumn's sweet transformation

England 35 Australia 18: After two years of sterility England finally spring into life to overwhelm the Wallabies
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Some said it was the best England performance at Twickenham since Jonny Wilkinson did for the All Blacks in 2002 – a victory that hinted strongly at the World Cup riches to come. Others went much further, considering it the best since the time of Noah, another individual who performed most effectively in the wet. If, in reality, it was merely the best since Andy Robinson's side put 30-odd points past a full-strength herd of Springboks four years ago, who's quibbling? Not Martin Johnson, that's for sure.

There were moments on Saturday night when the manager, who freely admits to being a miserable old sod and regards beetle-browed grumpiness as his default position, looked happy – or at least, something close to happy. He was certainly satisfied and very definitely relieved, although he tried to appear otherwise. "All matches are pivotal matches," he insisted, stubbornly refusing to admit that this match had been more pivotal than any of the other pivotal ones.

But not even Johnson could keep it going for long in this moment of sweet deliverance. "Yes," he eventually admitted, "it is some reward for a lot of hard work. Did I ever despair? No, I don't think so. You always want things to happen more quickly than they do, but I've been arguing for a while that this team is moving in the right direction."

It had taken him two and a half years to summon a performance of genuine quality from his side, and had he been appointed in different circumstances he would not have been around to witness it. Had all things been equal, he would have gone the way of Robinson and Brian Ashton many moons previously. But things became unequal the moment he was given the job, because the politics of the situation left the Rugby Football Union with no choice but to cut him all the slack he needed. At the weekend, he and his coaching team finally justified their salaries.

It was not simply that England equalled their record winning margin over the Wallabies, or that they stuck more points on them than ever before, impressive as these achievements might have been. What hit the spot was the manner of the victory. Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs, a wing and a scrum-half with seven Test starts between them, raised the red-rose energy levels with a joule-count that was off the graph compared with the single-digit stuff produced by every other back-line thrown together since the end of the 2008 Six Nations.

Up front, too, there were dynamic contributions from Dylan Hartley and Tom Croft, along with what might turn out to be a career-defining display from Tom Palmer. Add to this the maturity of Toby Flood's game-management at outside-half, not to mention the growing authority of his goal-kicking, and it is easy to understand why the Australians, still missing an important forward or two, failed to cope.

"Mate, they were bloody good out there today," admitted the Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore who, along with the electrifying full-back Kurtley Beale, was one of precious few tourists to get to grips with the tempo, the physicality and the accuracy of England's rugby. "They were hard on the ball, they made very few mistakes in contact and they gave us next to nothing. If they keep playing like that, they'll go a long way."

Robbie Deans, the head coach, was equally impressed. "They'll take a lot out of that, and so they should," he said. "They've broadened their game, opened it up, and I think they'll stay on that course now. Rugby is still different up here – it all happens lower down, with more people on the floor and fewer people on their feet – but I think next year's World Cup will be played more in this style than the one we've become familiar with back home. Now England are showing a willingness to play, it should suit them."

The way Deans saw it, England won – and won convincingly – because they generated a high percentage of quick, front-foot possession at the tackle area. This was no mean feat, for David Pocock, the brilliant Wallaby breakaway, was at his most combative on the floor, securing turnovers from the start and giving the tourists a handle on proceedings. Had they capitalised fully on an early line-out steal from Mark Chisholm the outcome might have been different, but the eye-catching Palmer made the first of two crucial defensive interventions, smashing Ben McCalman backwards on the 22-metre line and denying the tourists the clean ruck ball they needed for a straightforward touchdown.

That was in the sixth minute of the opening period. In the sixth minute of the second, Palmer did something even more dramatic, wrestling the ball away from the dangerous Will Genia on his own goal-line and setting off the most exhilarating chain reaction in recent rugby memory. Dangerously exposed in his own dead-ball area, Youngs indulged his attacking instinct by side-stepping out of trouble and finding Courtney Lawes in a yard or two of space. Lawes kept a cool head to free Ashton, who promptly set sail down the right before noticing that Drew Mitchell, the covering Wallaby wing, had drawn a bead on him – a realisation resulting in a directional switch at high speed and a joyous completion at the sticks. "Chris was over halfway before I looked up from the ruck," said Palmer. "I couldn't believe it. If ever there was a 14-point swing in a game, that was it."

While Ashton had already used his rugby cunning to nail an excellent first-half try, tracking Croft and the accomplished Mark Cueto as they flicked exquisitely-timed passes off the floor, this was the act that earned him a place in Twickenham lore alongside such fabled finishers as Rory Underwood and Jason Robinson. "England are always being criticised for not moving the ball, so it's nice to score one like that," he remarked, pointedly.

It was a special moment for a player who had briefly considered returning to rugby league after being dropped from the Northampton first team. "It was my late dad who persuaded me that I shouldn't go back to league with my head down, saying I'd made the wrong decision in moving across," he remarked. "I thank him for it, because I was in a difficult place at that point, a place I don't want to see again. I'm still learning the game, but I'm loving it now. With a bit of luck, I'll have another 10 years of this."

Another 10 months will suit Johnson, given the proximity of the World Cup. The manager knows there are likely to be setbacks between now and next September: a Springbok team fast rediscovering their "mongrel" qualities are likely to make life extremely difficult for everyone concerned in 12 days' time, especially if they arrive in London sniffing a Grand Slam, and there is always the potential for another dog's breakfast of a Six Nations campaign.

But the last 120 minutes of red-rose rugby have been strikingly better than almost anything seen in the previous 1,180 minutes of Test activity under Johnson's stewardship, and it has been a startling transformation. The trick now is to follow the trail into the forest and see where it leads.

Scorers: England: Tries: Ashton 2; Conversions Flood 2; Penalties Flood 7. Australia: Tries: Beale 2; Conversion O'Connor; Penalties: O'Connor 2.

England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tindall (Gloucester; D Armitage, London Irish, 63), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester; C Hodgson, Sale, 80), B Youngs (Leicester; D Care, Harlequins, 54); A Sheridan (Sale; D Wilson, Bath, 67), D Hartley (Northampton; S Thompson, Leeds, 71), D Cole (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), T Palmer (Stade Francais; S Shaw, Wasps, 72), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Bath, capt), N Easter (Harlequins; H Fourie, Leeds, 80).

Australia: K Beale (NSW Waratahs); J O'Connor (Western Force), A Ashley-Cooper (ACT Brumbies), M Giteau (Brumbies; B Barnes, Waratahs, 80), D Mitchell (Waratahs); Q Cooper (Queensland Reds), W Genia (Reds; L Burgess, Waratahs, 48); B Robinson (Waratahs; J Slipper, Reds, 54), S Moore (Brumbies), B Alexander (Brumbies), M Chisholm (Brumbies; D Mumm, Waratahs, 57), N Sharpe (Force), R Elsom (Brumbies, capt), D Pocock (Force), B McCalman (Force; R Brown, Force, 57).

Referee C Joubert (South Africa).

Twickenham's grandstand tries

Chris Ashton's second try on Saturday, a length-of-the-field score sparked by Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes, stands alongside some of the great "tries from nowhere" witnessed at Twickenham over the last couple of decades.



Philippe Saint-André France v England, 1991

One of the greatest of all international tries: a brilliant, bamboozling creation combining buccaneering individualism (Serge Blanco), precision running (Jean-Baptiste Lafond, Philippe Sella) and a touch of divine inspiration (Didier Camberabero, whose chip-and-gather was almost as wonderful as his cross-kick for Saint-André). Pure poetry.



Rory Underwood England v Scotland, 1993

Stuart Barnes, the provocative polar-opposite to Rob "Butter wouldn't melt" Andrew, made the most of his return as England's outside-half, fulfilling a pre-match pledge to load some bullets for his backs to fire. His sharp scuttle out of defence, continued by the purring centre Jeremy Guscott, earned Underwood one of his most memorable tries.



Jonah Lomu New Zealand v England, 1999

In a World Cup pool match, Andrew Mehrtens played the Ben Youngs role here, spotting that Matt Perry, the lone English back capable of stopping the freakish Lomu, had been given a "hospital pass" by Lawrence Dallaglio and was out of commission at the bottom of a ruck. One long pass later, Lomu was stampeding down the left, bouncing would-be tacklers into oblivion as the All Blacks clinched a 30-16 victory.

twickenham's grandstand tries       chris hewett

England's next fixtures
Saturday: v Samoa
Saturday 27 Nov: v South Africa

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