Wilkinson's return not enough to save flat-footed England

England 9 Australia 18: Giteau calls the shots as Wallabies expose the lack of penetration from Johnson's injury-ravaged side
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There is a long list of troubling tasks facing Martin Johnson and his cohort of England coaches this morning. So low did the sweet chariot swing yesterday that the metronomic swipe of Jonny Wilkinson's boot was drowned out by chimes of doom among a Twickenham crowd who cheered their returning hero whenever they could but were not so sycophantic as to ignore the discordant rugby unfolding in front of them.

While the Barbour brigade groaned, the Wallabies kicked off their Grand Slam bid with a win which would have been by a much wider margin had they finished off two second-half overlaps. England's fitful bursts of sustained excellence in open play were perpetrated too far from the Australian goal line to make any significant difference.

Someone needs to come up with some answers before Argentina and New Zealand hit town in the next two weekends. Not just Johnson, but every man-jack of the England squad. It cannot be overlooked that around a dozen contenders were absent injured; the scrum without Andy Sheridan, Phil Vickery, Lee Mears, Julian White and Simon Shaw in the front five was a neutered platform even before poor Duncan Bell came on as a replacement and belly-flopped into conceding the most red faced of penalties. It was different in the line-out, where Steve Borthwick, the captain, nicked a couple of Australian throws and combined with Tom Croft to be impressively secure on England's. But the irony was not lost on Johnson that the second of Australia's two tries - the death-knell score by Adam Ashley-Cooper after 70 minutes - came straight after England's replacement lock and second debutant of the day, Courtney Lawes, had stolen the Wallabies' ball.

"We were 6-0 up and playing well but in the second half we invited pressure back on ourselves," said Johnson, whose first autumn campaign as manager a year ago included heavy defeats here by Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. "We didn't handle slow ball well; we turned it into slow ball." That was a candid admission to set alongside the party line that Australia were more battle-hardened by their diet of Tri-Nations action.

Whereas the England midfield of Wilkinson, in his first Test for 20 months, Shane Geraghty and Dan Hipkiss struggled to breach the gain line, the masterful Matt Giteau and an unfamiliar centre pairing of Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane gradually turned the screw. England led at half-time, but Giteau's penalty after 45 minutes was followed by another just before the hour which put Australia ahead 11-9. In between was a telling spell when Wilkinson and Geraghty were forced into ugly errors with a pass around the back and sliced cross-kick respectively. Mind you, Geraghty also perpetrated a lovely show-and-go which underlined his bottle and ability, but it was a rare moment of joy on the 23-year-old's first Test start. "To do what we did defensively was great," said Wilkinson, "but what wasn't so great was getting ourselves in those positions where we had to defend."

When Wilkinson dropped a goal in two-and-a half-minutes, and added a penalty for a supposed dangerous tackle by Peter Hynes on Ugo Monye – one of half-a-dozen calls by the New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence which England could feel thankful for – there was hope in the air. Injuries and World Cups meant this was Wilkinson's first autumn international since 2002; he had won the previous eight. But Will Genia, the Wallaby scrum-half who has been learning his trade against the Springboks and All Blacks, nipped past Louis Deacon for a 21st-minute try after James Horwill had been held by Borthwick and Jordan Crane.

Wilkinson's penalty made it 9-5 three minutes later, but the conundrum was already looming for Johnson – and renewed accusations of an old Leicester bias in his selection – which is how to inject the dynamism offered by non-Tigers types such as James Haskell and Lawes without depleting yeoman English forward strength. Backs who can take a pass on the run, safely and often, would help too.

There are few more dynamic than Rocky Elsom, Australia's captain, though Lewis Moody rivalled him with gut-busting restarts. But Elsom butchered a one-man overlap soon after the interval; Ioane had two men outside him and also held on. The left shoulder of Wilkinson came through some crunching tackles on Giteau, Elsom and Mark Chisholm. By the same token, Cooper cut down Monye and Elsom held Matt Banahan to snuff out English attacks. Australia's retention of the Cook Cup was assured when a turnover and a series of flat passes ushered Ashley-Cooper past Cueto, whose tackle was as ineffectively high as the crowd's mood was low.

Man for man: England

Ugo Monye 6/10

Showed up well in attack, winning penalties. Looked lively and sharp whenever he took possession... and when he could stay on his feet. Pulled over the tryline by Adam Ashley-Cooper for the second Australia try.

Mark Cueto 6/10

Safe pair of hands under the high ball and strong on the counter-attack. Seemed to disappear a little in the second half as Australia pushed forward. Good tactical kicking. Couldn't stop Ashley-Cooper either.

Dan Hipkiss 5/10

Started well but faded as the game went on. Outshone and outperformed by centre partner Shane Geraghty, and that's saying something because Geraghty didn't exactly sparkle either. Didn't do anything wrong particularly, just didn't do much right.

Shane Geraghty 5/10

More sinner than Saint. the Northampton outside-half was partly at fault for Australia's first try when he turned his back to track along the defensive line rather than fill the gap created by Louis Deacon. Geraghty was well contained by the Australian defence.

Matt Banahan 6/10

The 6ft 7in Bath flyer used his height to make the most of Wilkinson's cross-kicks and gave a typically barnstorming performance in the first half. One-dimensional attack in the second hampered England. More of a blunt instrument than rapier-like tool. Blunt can be fine but not when you are up against the likes of Australia.

Jonny Wilkinson 8/10

Wilko made his first start in a white shirt in 18 months. Used his Toulon tan to control proceedings. Well, actually it was his boot, his vision and the odd monster tackle on Matt Giteau that put the spring in England's step. Took his kicks well apart from a grumpy-looking attempt at a drop goal in the second half.

Danny Care 6/10

Quick to the breakdown and gave good service to Wilkinson. Clever cross-kick to Lewis Moody in the right corner almost produced a try – although it did not matter because England had already won the penalty. Couple of careless knock-ons but an otherwise solid display.

Tim Payne 6/10

Part of a formidable England front row – at least in the first half. Stayed on for the duration as his colleagues succumbed to attrition and tactical changes.

Steve Thompson 7/10

Sore neck? Moi? (as they say over the water in Brive). Looked like a new man. Accurate throwing in at the line-out, providing superb platform at set-pieces and showing the value of his experience. Scrum lost its authority after he was replaced by Dylan Hartley 15 minutes into the second half.

David Wilson 6/10

"Roll out the barrel" etc etc. Popped up, or should that be propped up, in midfield. Made some destructive runs and battered and bounced away at a mostly impermeable but sometimes indisciplined Australian defence. Went off with shoulder injury and was replaced by Duncan Bell.

Louis Deacon 5/10

Another one at fault for Wallaby Will's try. Stood a little wide in defensive line five yards out. Genia spotted the gap, threw the dummy and cut through to score.

Steve Borthwick 7/10

Never took a step back, at least not willingly anyway. He jumped, he caught, he ran, he tackled, he took the hits. What else could anyone ask of England's captain? To win the game perhaps? Hmmm.

Tom Croft 6/10

Surprisingly quiet. Didn't seem to get enough ball. It wasn't as though England didn't have the possession: they clearly did, but when they did, Croft wasn't the recipient.

Lewis Moody 7/10

Made the usual nuisance of himself. The Leicester flanker carried his superb club form into this game. Did most of the ball-carrying duties.

Jordan Crane 5/10

First Test start for Leicester No 8. Sniped well around the rucks and played line-out role well but not at his best. Replaced by Haskell.

Replacements

Dylan Hartley On for Thompson. Quiet. Duncan Bell On for Wilson. Costly penalty. Courtney Lawes On for Deacon. Little chance to show talent. James Haskell On for Crane. One superb run. Paul Hodgson On for Care. Quicker delivery. Ayoola Erinle On for Hipkiss. Dropped ball in attacking position.

Julian Cooper

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