Johnson hopes shock win will provide World Cup launchpad

Australia 20 England 21
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The Independent Online

What lessons do we draw from rugby's tales of the unexpected? The grand old West Country farmer John Pullin led England to victories in South Africa and New Zealand in the early 1970s, but it didn't mean they were any good; indeed, it was Pullin himself who famously declared that they weren't any good. On the other hand, the team that Martin Johnson skippered to victory over the Springboks in Bloemfontein precisely a decade ago developed into something extra-special. When the ledger is drawn up after next year's World Cup, on which side will the current lot appear?

God only knows. If Johnson's record as manager remains poor – nine victories in 22 starts, and only four in 10 this season – he now has a precious victory in the southern hemisphere, something that will keep the critical multitudes off his back until the autumn, allowing him time and space to plot a route through the thicket that leads to next year's global gathering in All Black country. If he has blooded a quartet of players – the wing Chris Ashton, the scrum-half Ben Youngs, the prop Dan Cole and the lock Courtney Lawes – who already look like Test Lions in the making, and has another second-rower, Dave Attwood, roaring into view like an express train, he has made next to no progress in producing a half-decent midfield.

There are so many either-ors, so many ifs and maybes, that it is well nigh impossible to make an intelligent assessment of exactly where England currently stand. All will be revealed in the fullness of time, but for the moment, Old Beetle-Brows can crack open a bottle of proper beer (as opposed to the grisly stuff he has been forced to drink here), stretch out on the sofa and relax. A win over the Wallabies in Australia, and especially in Sydney, is something to savour – even if these Wallabies fielded the weakest pack since they lost three against the head to the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

How on earth did it happen? Steve Thompson, one of precious few Englishmen who can genuinely claim to lord it over the Australians – he has now started three Tests in this country and won the lot – has his own ideas. "The thing with these summer tours," he said in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's dramatic turn of events, "is that our preparation is never ideal. A game against the Barbarians at Twickenham is all well and good, but playing the Baa-Baas has nothing to do with playing a Test. Here, we needed a first Test to get up to speed for the second. Our defeat in Perth was bitterly disappointing, but I for one hadn't played a game at that pace for ages."

Just as he had the previous week, the World Cup-winning hooker played a leading hand in dismantling a Wallaby set-piece unit so far short of international standard that they might have struggled for ball against their own scrum machine. Two collapses in the third quarter allowed Toby Flood and Jonny Wilkinson to kick the penalties that swung the game England's way, although the hosts would surely have wrapped up the series had Matt Giteau not fluffed his lines on the marksmanship front. Giteau is some player – his two tries here were beauties – but there must now be serious concerns over his eyesight. Having cost his country victories over Ireland and Scotland last autumn, he blew their chances here by missing a couple of stone-cold certainties.

Yet if the scrummaging was at the heart of the matter, there was something of equal value alongside it. Having disappeared off the face of the earth in Perth, the England back row reappeared to dominate their opponents at the tackle area. Lewis Moody played a captain's knock, to the extent that he knocked himself senseless. "I wanted to get in Quade Cooper's face," he explained, referring to the Wallaby outside-half. What he actually succeeded in doing was something slightly different: he put his face into Cooper's knee. For three or four minutes, the flanker was away with the fairies. Did it stop him knocking Australians flat on their backsides? Did it heck.

Keeping pace every step of the way was Tom Croft, who finally played rugby for England the way he frequently plays it at club level and, most gloriously, for the Lions in South Africa last summer. He held the line-out together, just about, and visited the furthest reaches of the Olympic Stadium pitch in pursuit of the ball. Most importantly for those who were beginning to question his appetite for the down-and-dirty aspects of the back-rower's trade, he mixed it with Rocky Elsom and David Pocock in a way that would have made a John Hall or a Mike Teague nod in recognition. It was his best performance in a white shirt, by miles.

Given some front-foot ball – the kind they were inexplicably denied in Perth even though the scrum was moving forward at the speed of light – the England backs finally made something of themselves. Ashton is one of life's natural try-scorers, a gift that makes up for his occasional defensive faux pas and his apparent inability to throw a sympathetic pass off either hand. His finish late in the first half was as sharp as Tom Palmer's delightful scoring pass demanded it should be and there were moments when, materialising close to the breakdown, he asked questions of the Wallaby loose forwards that they struggled to answer.

And Youngs? Terrific. It is almost as if the Leicester half-back has arrived in international rugby fully formed, so complete is his range of skills and decision-making. The try he scored at the end of the opening quarter from Croft's delivery off a shortened line-out was high calibre, and it was not until the hour-mark that he made his first obvious error, a tiny fumble at the feet of his forwards that was called as a knock-on. Even this worked in England's favour, for they were happy to accept whatever gifts of scrummage they received.

Almost as striking was Youngs' assessment of the team's mood. "There had been no lack of effort or heart in Perth, but we were beaten up behind the gainline and it damaged our pride," said the 20-year-old son of the 1980s England scrum-half Nick Youngs, a No 9 of a rather different cut, having been built like a tank and been happy to play like one. "There was a lot of hurt. We're here representing our country and we didn't do the shirt justice. We were determined to get it together this time."

England got it together, albeit against a Wallaby pack that resembled the average Australian brew, being less than half strength. That particular detail did not worry Johnson and his coaching team as they headed for the bars around Circular Quay. Perhaps for the first time since this regime was born in a blizzard of controversy, the manager enjoyed the taste of his beer. Metaphorically speaking, at least.

Scorers: Australia: Tries Giteau 2; Conversions Giteau 2; Penalties Giteau 2. England: Tries Youngs, Ashton; Conversion Flood; Penalties Flood 2, Wilkinson.

Australia: J O'Connor (W Force); D Mitchell (New South Wales), R Horne (NSW), M Giteau (ACT), D Ioane (Queensland); Q Cooper (Queensland), W Genia (Queensland); 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 Ma'afu 54; M Chisholm (ACT) for Mumm 54; A Ashley-Cooper (ACT) for Ioane 66; H Edmonds (ACT) for Faingaa 76.

England: B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), S Hape (Bath), C Ashton (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); T Payne (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Cole (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester, capt), N Easter (Harlequins).

Replacements: D Wilson (Bath) for Cole 5-13 and 54-63, and for Payne 75; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Flood 50; S Shaw (Wasps) for Lawes 60; D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs 69; D Armitage (London Irish) for Tindall 72; G Chuter (Leicester) for Thompson 75.

Referee: R Poite (France).