Johnson faces moment of truth after toothless Australia stun hapless tourists

Australia 27 England 17
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The Independent Online

God knows, there is nothing remotely holy about the sport of rugby union, although generations of South Africans and Pacific islanders have spread the word of the Lord before smashing seven bells out of their opponents. So if Martin Johnson sought solace in the good book after this miserable failure against a half-strength Wallaby team – no Matt Giteau or Will Genia, no James Horwill or Wycliff Palu, no front-row forward worthy of the name – it could only have been in desperation. Judging by the manager's expression on the morning after his long evening's journey into night, the answers he needed were proving elusive.

If rugby had a bible to call its own, one of the texts would say something along these lines: "Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a team with no scrum to win a Test match." Somehow – and union folk will still be puzzled by this decades from now – England found a way of disproving the dictum. The Wallabies, fielding the greenest and weakest sharp-end combination in living memory, conceded nine penalties at the set-piece, plus two free-kicks for good measure. They lost a prop to the sin bin and rewrote the record books by coughing up two penalty tries totalling 14 points. Ben Daley and Salesi Ma'afu made Matt Dunning and Al Baxter, those comic figures of the recent Australian past, look like French front-rowers of the 1970s. And still England lost!

Johnson expected his side to establish a degree of supremacy in the tight, yet he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams that they would boss the scrums to this extent. Graham Rowntree, the scrum coach, could not remember seeing a team lose from such a position of advantage. Neither could Dan Cole, the Leicester prop at the heart of the effort, or Steve Thompson, the hooker who has been knocking around the Test scene since the early years of the last decade and knows a thing or two about rugby reality. They wore the expressions of men flabbergasted by what they had experienced, and if truth be told the Wallabies were more dumbfounded still.

Not that the sense of shock survived the first viewing of the match statistics. The official bulletin had England missing more than 30 tackles, most of them in a first-half performance grisly beyond words. The tourists' in-house figure was significantly worse – anywhere between 40 and 44, depending on the source. The England "kick-chase" line was fractured on eight occasions – a capital crime at any level of rugby – and they missed comfortable kicks to touch every bit as regularly. No wonder James O'Connor, Quade Cooper and Luke Burgess made such a mess of their opponents. It was as if England had worked out the best way of neutering the Australian attack, and then consciously set out to do the opposite.

Unsurprisingly, the increasingly put-upon Johnson felt he owed the players a piece of his mind in the minutes following the final whistle and went out of his way to ensure they received it. Asked whether he had been harder on them than at any point in his two-year tenure, he replied: "Who knows? Yes, I think so, looking back." It was not his clearest or most concise answer by any manner of means, but it told a tale. The manager puts precious little of himself on display, especially when he finds himself in sporting extremis, but he could not help lifting the curtain on his thinking this time.

Cole, one of the very few individuals who even begins to justify the coaching team's frequently expressed claims of "progress", was more candid. "We were sloppy," he confessed. "We were second to most balls around the field and we have to start shaping up. When the scrum was there to be attacked we did the job, but we can't be satisfied with that. We had a good opportunity to win a Test in the southern hemisphere and we missed out. The feeling is one of intense frustration."

That frustration is beginning to turn into something more damaging: a degree of self-questioning amongst the coaching staff that will inevitably threaten their unity unless the team's performance in this weekend's second and final Test in Sydney is at least 70 per cent better. Some of them consider the next few days to be the most important since the grim early stages of the world title defence in France in 2007, and with good reason.

For all the blessings bestowed upon him – greater access to players, a hand-picked support staff, pots of cash – Johnson has won only eight of his 22 matches in charge and has prevailed only once on the road in nine attempts. That was over Italy in Rome four months ago. When compared with the record of his predecessor, Brian Ashton, sacked so ruthlessly by the Rugby Football Union in 2008, this makes uncomfortable reading.

Leaving aside the odd flash of twinkle-toed invention from Ben Foden at full-back – and it must be said that the Northampton player looked distinctly dodgy when presented with something other than a broken field to run in – England's attacking game had almost as little to recommend it as their defensive one. Chris Ashton threatened occasionally, as did Mike Tindall, but it was second-rate stuff when set against the brilliance of O'Connor, Cooper and company.

The Wallabies might have scored four or five tries in the opening half-hour, but being the generous souls they are, they restricted themselves to two. The first fell to Rocky Elsom, their captain, after the free-roaming Drew Mitchell had run back Danny Care's upfield hoof with the kind of interest generally associated with online loan-sharks. The second was claimed by Cooper following lovely work by Burgess, the scrum-half. Had they been able to scrummage at all, they would have won by 30 points or more.

But they couldn't, so they didn't. Indeed, Elsom and his fellow flanker David Pocock found themselves performing all manner of heroics in the tackle as England finally worked out ways of setting up camp in Australian territory and squeezing the Wallaby front-rowers until their eyes watered.

Yet even when the tourists clawed themselves to within four points, they could not keep their hosts quiet long enough for it to count. Cooper's second try, manufactured in conjunction with Digby Ioane, was launched from ... a scrum, of all things. It was quick, clean and easy – no English huff or red-rose puff – and just about the most telling moment of the contest.

This coming Saturday, at the Sydney stadium where the World Cup was won almost seven years ago, England will find themselves playing for something far more important, if not nearly so swanky: their self-respect. If they lose badly, not even the pin-striped ostriches in the RFU hierarchy will be able to pretend things are not as bad as they have patently become. And there will not be a single member of the coaching staff who will be able to say for sure that he will still be in place come next year's global gathering across the Tasman in New Zealand.

Australia: Tries Cooper 2, Elsom; Cons O'Connor 3. Pens O'Connor, Cooper. England: Tries Penalty tries 2; Cons Flood 2; Pen Flood.

Australia J O'Connor (Western Force); D Mitchell (New South Wales), R Horne (NSW), B Barnes (NSW), D Ioane (Queensland); Q Cooper (Queensland), L Burgess (NSW); B Daley (Queensland), S Faingaa (Queensland), S Ma'afu (ACT), D Mumm (NSW), N Sharpe (W Force), R Elsom (ACT, capt), D Pocock (W Force), R Brown (W Force). Replacements J Slipper (Queensland) for Daley 70; Daley for Brown 73-86 and for Ma'afu 86; M Chisholm (ACT) for Mumm 76; K Beale (NSW) for O'Connor 82; H Edmonds (ACT) for Faingaa 86; M Hodgson (W Force) for Pocock 86.

England B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), S Hape (Bath), C Ashton (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester, capt), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements B Youngs (Leicester) for Care 62; C Lawes (Northampton) for Shaw 63; J Haskell (Stade Francais) for Moody 70; D Wilson (Bath) for Payne 73; G Chuter (Leicester) for Thompson 76; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Tindall 80; M Tait (Sale) for Flood 86.

Referee N Owens (Wales).