England's hopes of an autumn clean sweep, and breaking into the big league occupied by the southern hemisphere at the top of the world rankings, fell apart in a shattering defeat by Australia here.
The Wallabies were supposedly wobbling and ready to be ripped apart by England wing Chris Ashton, returning after he missed the seven-try rout of Fiji last weekend through suspension. But in a classy display of vastly improved scrummaging and dazzling footwork from playmakers Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale, the Aussies ripped up the formbook of their 33-6 mauling by France.
England's decision- making was slammed by former manager Sir Clive Woodward, who criticised the captain, Chris Robshaw, for refusing kicks at goal and playing for line-outs instead when Australia led by only six points with more than 20 minutes left. The result leaves England, playing in unfamiliar purple shirts yesterday, needing to beat South Africa and New Zealand in their remaining autumn Tests to have any chance of being among the top four seeds who will earn an easier pool in the draw for the 2015 World Cup, to be made in London on 3 December.
While Woodward, analysing for television, did not quibble with a later choice by replacement scrum-half Ben Youngs to tap and run, the 2003 World Cup-winning coach said the line-outs were wrong when the narrow points gap needed bridging. The chance for vindication was blown when England's No 8 Tom Waldrom lost control just as he was grounding the ball for a try.
England's head coach, Stuart Lancaster, stood up for his captain, saying: "We'll look at every decision but with the momentum at the time I thought it was the right decision. You back your players on the field. The momentum was with us and I thought we were going to score a try. If we are going to give players the confidence to go out and play we have to back them."
Robshaw made similar calls in Heineken Cup matches with his club Harlequins last season, going for scrums rather than points with mixed results against Gloucester and Connacht. And Youngs' recent tap-and-go that came to nothing when he was playing for Leicester in Toulouse had an echo when the same ploy led to England full-back Mike Brown being stripped of the ball by the Aussie defence.
Robshaw said: "You have to make sure that if you do go, you get points. That's a decision myself and the other game leaders have to have a look at. We scored a try once [in the first half through Manu Tuilagi], got turned over another time and nearly scored as well. We weren't clinical enough, we squandered some chances. We weren't clinical and you need to be when you play the best teams."
Former Wallaby great David Campese had called for the head of Australia's coach, Robbie Deans, during the week but "Dingo" Deans, the New Zealander now expected to keep his job through to next summer's British & Irish Lions tour Down Under, had the last laugh.
Deans explained England's refusal of goal-kicks, saying: "They wanted to win the game. We'd been more than competitive in terms of field position and they may have felt they wouldn't get that position again. You make these decisions in real time."
Fly-half and goalkicker Toby Flood, who booted three first-half penalties in addition to the try by centre Tuilagi from Danny Care's tapped penalty, revealed that the England pack had begged for the chance to go for a score from the line-out.
"I discussed it with Robbo [Robshaw] and gave them what they wanted," said Flood. "Large parts of this are fixable. The guys have got quality skills, it comes down to the execution. We're not going to beat ourselves up now – that will be done in the rest of the week."