For a team under fire from former greats and lacking three possible captains through injury, Australia gave a remarkable display of fearless rugby to bring England’s autumn bandwagon to a juddering halt.
The home captain Chris Robshaw’s decision-making was a big factor in the Wallabies’ six- point win to regain the Cook Cup – rugby’s version of the Ashes – as he refused kicks at goal with more than 20 minutes left to play and Australia leading by only six points. The gap was never bridged, and while England had scored a try through Manu Tuilagi from a bravely tapped penalty in the first half, the same tactic failed in the closing quarter to complete an afternoon of frustration.
“We weren’t clinical enough and we squandered some chances,” said Robshaw, who called a line-out to himself late on, only for the last chance to be blown by the umpteenth fumble in possession by his butter-fingered side. “You have to make sure that if you do go, you get points,” he said. His Australian counterpart, Nathan Sharpe, had come out of retirement earlier this year, and he led the gold jerseys against those in change-strip purple in the absence of James Horwill, Will Genia and David Pocock. From a 33-6 thrashing in France last weekend – the same day England were running seven tries past a poor Fiji – this was an amazing comeback, reflecting more than anything the battle-hardening and skill-enhancing nature of the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.
England failed to pass sympathetically and their coach, Stuart Lancaster, drew most on their perseverance, which should be a given, when looking ahead to the chances of redemption against South Africa and New Zealand in the next fortnight. The prettiest footwork belonged to the Wallaby centre Ben Tapuai; the playmaking honours went to Kurtley Beale and Berrick Barnes’s boot. The man of the match, deservedly, was Pocock’s all-action understudy Michael Hooper, who happens to have an English dad.
There was a try each in the final six minutes of the first half, but Australia ought to have had one before that. They were trailing 6-3 – two penalties by Toby Flood to a dropped goal from Barnes – when Hooper, caught a Wallaby overthrow at the tail of a line-out and initiated an attack that ended with Ben Alexander ignoring a possible four-on-three overlap to drive in for the score. Amid the pile-up, the television match official, Jim Yuille of Scotland, decided he could not see whether the ball had made it over the line. Having been asked: “Try, yes or no?” he replied in the negative. Surely, after HD and 3-D the next step must be X-ray TV.
Barnes soon squared the scores when England’s Joe Marler was penalised for not binding at a scrum in his team’s 22, and England were driven off their put-in on 19 minutes.
Before half-time England restored their three-point advantage as Flood kicked a penalty for 9-6 when Alexander went off his feet (driven there by a clumsy team-mate). Then a kick to nowhere in particular by Danny Care invited an Australian counter. Barnes and Beale shaped as if to kick but instead fed their scrum-half, Nick Phipps, who shot past Charlie Sharples and Tom Johnson before passing outside for the dynamic wing Nick Cummins to finish at the right-hand corner. The pass was one of those that appeared to leave the hands backwards but drifted forwards.
In any case, Barnes missed the conversion, and England replied equally contentiously when Care bravely tapped a penalty about 35 metres from the Aussie goal-line, going left, and with passes by Johnson and Brad Barritt, it was left for Tuilagi to plunge to the line. The centre had Beale tackling him and Phipps on his back but the TMO ruled he had kept enough control of the ball as he placed at full stretch to allow the try: 14-11. It could only have touched a few blades of white-painted grass but it counted.
Barnes levelled again with his second penalty goal three minutes into the second half, when Geoff Parling failed to roll away from a ruck, and to general astonishment and Wallaby glee, Marler was pinged again at the next scrum for not binding. An extremely dodgy spell for England continued with two more penalties by Barnes after 49 and 52 minutes with the home team caught red-handed after the tackle; a problem area, to be sure.
England’s young replacements Joe Launchbury and Mako Vunipola made immediate impacts. Chris Ashton, back after missing the Fiji rout suspended, had a sniff of the corner but was held up, It led to a line-out, then, crucially, two more when Robshaw refused those kicks at the posts. Tom Waldrom almost scored for England but lost control as Hooper’s leg brushed him. Then Barnes fell just short with a 50-metre kick for Australia. England’s day was summed up by Owen Farrell’s bulleted pass somewhere around Tuilagi’s knees being spilt forward.
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), T Waldrom (Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt). Replacements: D Paice (London Irish) for T Youngs, 73; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Marler, 49; J Launchbury (Wasps) for Palmer, 53; T Wood (Northampton) for Johnson, 49; B Youngs (Leicester) for Care, 60; O Farrell (Saracens) for Barritt, 73; M Brown (Harlequins) for Sharples, 60.
Australia: B Barnes (Waratahs); N Cummins (Western Force), A Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs), B Tapuai (Reds), D Ioane (Reds); K Beale (Rebels), N Phipps (Rebels); B Robinson (Waratahs), T Polota-Nau (Waratahs), B Alexander (Brumbies), S Timani (Waratahs), N Sharpe (Western Force, capt), D Dennis (Waratahs), W Palu (Waratahs), M Hooper (Waratahs). Replacements: S Moore (Brumbies) for Polota-Nau, 40; J Slipper (Reds) for Robinson, 60; S Kepu (Waratahs) for Alexander, 70; L Gill (Reds) for Dennis, 56-66; D Mitchell (Waratahs) for Ioane, 69.
Referee: R Poite (France).