Lancaster and England must act fast to salvage autumn feel-good factor
Another defeat, against South Africa on Saturday, will throw World Cup hopes into disarray
Death and taxes are not the only certainties in life: equally inevitable is a Wallaby victory at Twickenham if the Australian forwards somehow avoid the ignominy of having their heads rammed up their own fundamentals. On their latest visit to London, the men from Down Under were allowed to play heads-up rugby in the clear light of day – and as a consequence, England's hopes of being a seeded team at their own World Cup in 2015 disappeared into a very dark alley.
Stuart Lancaster, the head coach of the national team, will not see this as the most pressing of his concerns: as the Springboks are heading his way this weekend, followed by a New Zealand team of all the talents, his immediate task is to work out a way of salvaging some of the feel-good factor with which he and his charges started this autumn campaign. But the rankings are significant: if England finish outside the top four – and they are a good way behind France, who currently occupy the all-important position below the usual southern hemisphere suspects – they could find themselves in truly horrible company when the draw for the pool stage is made early next month.
Many supporters left the stadium after the 20-14 defeat complaining that their side, clad in a preposterous shade of "regal purple" that Dame Edna Everage would unhesitatingly have consigned to the nearest charity bag, had made a right royal balls-up of it, but if that said more about Twickenham Man's sense of entitlement – Wallaby teams are never pushovers, even when they're being pushed around – there was no doubting the deflating nature of the defeat.
England were out-run in the loose by a second-string breakaway in Michael Hooper and were out-thought by Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale, who took Lancaster's Big Idea of a sophisticated playmaking link between outside-half and full-back and smashed him in the face with it. Most painfully of all, however, they were outscrummaged by Benn and Ben (aka Robinson and Alexander). This, needless to say, was not how things were meant to turn out.
Robinson is hardly one of life's aerodynamic sorts – without being overly rude, he is a man who crosses the Equator weighed down by an Equator of his own – but he dealt admirably with England's set-piece kingpin Dan Cole and can now look forward with relish to a resumption of the contest when the Lions head for Australia in six months' time. Alexander was more effective still, to the extent that he might have scrummaged the Mohican-haired Joe Marler clean out of the red-rose front row. Marler was withdrawn midway through the third quarter and is not guaranteed to like what he hears when the team for South Africa is announced to the players over the next couple of days.
The contest was not one-sided by any means. The teams were honours even in the try-count – it was possible to argue that neither should have been awarded, Nick Cummins's opener for the Wallabies resulting from a blatant forward pass and Manu Tuilagi's dodgem-car touchdown in the left corner being of the marginal "either-or" variety – and England finished the stronger. They forced the tourists into many an indiscretion at the breakdown, especially when they finally succeeded in cramping Hooper's wide-ranging style, and would have claimed a second try had they shown a little more composure in the Australian 22.
Yet the Wallabies would not have worried unduly, even had they forfeited the six-point advantage secured from the kicking tee in the minutes after the interval. Those penalties were the result of delicate chips into space from Beale and Barnes, who took it in turns to pull the England defence out of shape with a toe-poke here and a flighted short-range punt there. The two playmakers had so many tricks up their respective sleeves, they looked capable of conjuring similar scores on demand. By comparison, England's version of the 10-15 attacking link looked primitive. Toby Flood and Alex Goode both emerged from the contest with reputations enhanced, which was more than could be said for half the pack and the all-too-predictable partnership between Tuilagi and Brad Barritt in midfield, but it will be some time before they match Beale and Barnes for flexibility and variety. Lancaster should stick to his guns in this area, but he will need all the patience he can muster.
As for the much-criticised Wallaby coach Robbie Deans, he could afford to be magnanimous after righting the wrongs of a heavy defeat in Paris seven days previously. "I'm pleased for the players – they did it, not me," he said. "They weren't proud of what happened against France and there must have been an element of that behind the performance here because you don't want that kind of thing or your scorecard. Barnes? He's a very clever footballer and there's a future for him in that role. I can see why England are trying to do something similar in their own fashion because it suits the way rugby is moving."
Did Deans, fed through the mincing machine by former internationals who accuse him of "ruining Wallaby rugby", think he would still be in charge come the Lions series? How was he coping with the vitriol from an Australian rugby public keen to pin blame on an imported New Zealander? "The key is not to take your work home with you," he replied. "This is an emotive industry and I've been involved with it long enough not to let it distract me. It's easier said than done sometimes, but you have to keep sight of your priority, which in my case is the players. Lose sight of it and you miss out on the enjoyment the job can offer."
Lancaster, far less experienced in international coaching terms, is no more likely than Deans to make that mistake, least of all in public. He gave precious little away in the aftermath of the most painful of the four defeats he has suffered to date – if he openly acknowledged his disappointment and was quick to congratulate the Wallabies for their "smart" rugby, there was not so much as a scintilla of personal criticism aimed at one of his own – and will show a similarly straight bat ahead of the date with the Springboks.
But he has a good deal of thinking to do. Without the injured Northampton forwards Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, the England pack failed to boss a Wallaby unit shorn of three first-choice operators and widely considered to be the weakest of the major southern hemisphere octets even when at full strength. Given that the red-rose centres could play together until hell freezes over and still not find a cure for collective agoraphobia, the South Africans will arrive in the capital fancying their chances.
Scorers: England: Try: Tuilagi. Penalties: Flood 3. Australia Try: Cummins. Penalties: Barnes 4. Drop goal: Barnes.
England A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), C Sharples (Gloucester); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), T Palmer (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Johnson (Exeter), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), T Waldrom (Leicester). Replacements M Vunipola (Saracens) for Marler 49; T Wood (Northampton) for Johnson 49; J Launchbury (Wasps) for Palmer 53; M Brown (Harlequins) for Sharples 60; B Youngs (Leicester) for Care 60; O Farrell (Saracens) for Barritt 73; D Paice (London Irish) for Youngs 73.
Australia B Barnes (NSW Waratahs); N Cummins (Western Force), A Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs), B Tapuai (Queensland Reds), D Ioane (Reds); K Beale (Melbourne Rebels), N Phipps (Rebels); B Robinson (Waratahs), T Polota-Nau (Waratahs), B Alexander (ACT Brumbies), S Timani (Waratahs), N Sharpe (Force, capt), D Dennis (Waratahs), M Hooper (Waratahs), W Palu (Waratahs). Replacements S Moore (Brumbies) for Polta-Nau h-t; L Gill (Reds) for Dennis 55-66 and 76; J Slipper (Reds) for Robinson 60; D Mitchell (Waratahs) for Ioane 69; S Kepu (Waratahs) for Alexander 70.
Referee R Poite (France).
World cup draw: the hard facts
The world rankings are updated weekly and are determined by points and results, with extra weight given to more recent matches, strength of opposition and significant performances. Ranking points lost by one side from a match are awarded to the game's victors.
The seedings for next month's World Cup draw will be affected by the rankings. At present England lie fifth, putting them outside the seeds and at risk of a tougher draw.
Provisional IRB World rankings:
1 New Zealand 92.91
2 South Africa 86.05
3 Australia 85.94
4 France 84.99
5 England 81.96
6 Argentina 79.89
7 Ireland 79.04
8 Wales 78.95
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Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt are sufficiently physical to match the Springboks in the midfield crunch, but attacking invention is not their strong suit. Jonathan Joseph, a serious candidate at outside centre, is fit after injury and played for London Irish yesterday. If he returns to the side, who makes way?
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