English rugby victories in the land of the Wallaby are rarer than radium, so two in five days takes an awful lot of believing. Martin Johnson's much-criticised, much-mocked Test side emulated the second-string "dirt-trackers" yesterday by squeezing out a narrow victory over their hosts and if Matt Giteau, one of Australia's star turns, contributed handsomely to this unexpected turn of events by making a horrible mess of his goalkicking, there was much to be said for the bloody-mindedness of the tourists, who had performed so inadequately in Perth seven days previously.
Johnson's selectorial tinkerings – Ben Youngs for Danny Care at half-back, Courtney Lawes for Simon Shaw in the engine room of the scrum – worked out beautifully. Indeed, Youngs was wholly responsible for the first of England's two excellent tries, sniping round the back end of a shortened line-out and leaving Drew Mitchell, the Wallaby wing, holding nothing but handfuls of fresh New South Wales air.
The Wallabies fielded the same front row that had been marmalised at the scrums in Perth – thanks to the orthopaedic problems incapacitating their entire first-choice unit, they had precious little choice in the matter – and once again they were roasted in the heat generated by Tim Payne, Steve Thompson and the increasingly authoritative Dan Cole, the stand-out discovery of the English season. Yet while they had found plenty of ways of compensating in the first Test, they faced a more multi-faceted opposition this time. From one-trick ponies to Derby winners? Not exactly, but there was certainly something transformative about England.
Having watched the midweek side stamp a little personality on proceedings against the Australian Barbarians in Gosford on Tuesday night, Lewis Moody's seniors did likewise from the get-go. Moody claimed the first tackle on the first unfortunate Wallaby who found himself in possession and the Leicester flanker continued to smithereen Australians throughout the evening. He even managed three meaningful hits while staggering around the ANZ Stadium in a semi-conscious state, wholly self-inflicted but no less worrying for that. He may not be the most complete loose- forward in international rugby but he is one of the best players in the world without the ball.
His Welford Road confrère Tom Croft was equally effective, if not more: potent at the line-out, quick around the field, accurate in his support lines, mightily committed at the breakdown. This last quality will be celebrated long and hard by Johnson, who, in his quiet moments, must have been wondering whether the nearest thing England have to a young Lawrence Dallaglio was fully equipped in the "warrior's soul" department. Any suspicions in that regard can safely be laid to rest. Croft fought his battles like a true scarface here, and red-rose rugby can consider itself the better for it. If the Wallabies were poor by comparison with Perth – neither Rocky Elsom nor David Pocock, their tough-nut flankers, were nearly as effective second time around, largely because of the Moody-Croft axis – it would be churlish to lay England's victory entirely at the door of opposition fragility. Only twice in history had they won a Test in Australia – both in 2003, that World Cup-winning year of years – and this third victory was their first anywhere in the southern hemisphere since Johnson himself lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in this city.
Their first-half tries discombobulated the Australians, who had entered the fray convinced that a bare 40 per cent of possession would be enough to tie up the series 2-0. Youngs, full of beans and craftily calculating at one and the same time, made the first decisive contribution after early exchanges of penalties between Giteau and Toby Flood, and even though Giteau restored the Wallabies' narrow lead with a try off first-phase in the 27th minute – Richard Brown, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane were all involved – the hosts were never remotely secure.
Indeed, they were rocked back on their heels five minutes later when Chris Ashton finished in his customary predatory style after a multi-phased spell of English approach-work. Tom Palmer's clever scoring pass was a gem, but it was very much a team effort. It may well have been the most important try of Johnson's managerial tenure.
Two points ahead at the interval, England were hurt by Giteau's second try a couple of minutes into the second period – the result of a poor full-back's clearance from Ben Foden and some magical handiwork from Cooper, James O'Connor and Mitchell. But with their scrum under pressure the Wallabies conceded penalties and forfeited their lead to Flood and Jonny Wilkinson. It might not have been enough for England had Giteau not missed penalty shots of his own, one an absolute sitter in front of the sticks, but what might have been is of no concern to the tourists now. What was, and what is, matters infinitely more.
Man for man marking...
James O'Connor 6/10
Looked like a clever schoolboy, as usual, only this time with more stress on the "schoolboy" part. Got three Englishmen in the teeth on his first carry. Helped make the second try, though.
Digby Ioane 7/10
Strong game until he crocked himself landing from a leap for a high ball. Made the break and the pass for the first try with brutal efficiency.
Rob Horne 6/10
Is being compared to Jason Little, which is, with due inevitability, a very big compliment indeed. Also in on Giteau's second.
Matt Giteau 7/10
Scored two tries and all his team's points, but loses a mark for that miss from in front late on. Particularly grisly. Gets it back because of his lovely first try, which he made with a devilishly clever decoy run.
Drew Mitchell 5/10
Youngs made him look silly for England's first try, so a non-committal six becomes a slightly harsh five.
Quade Cooper 6/10
The difference between last week and this – off the first line-out the fly-half put in half a step before taking a Moody-shaped blur, full pelt, smack in the mush. Dropped his next ball, leading to a penalty, and never really settled after that.
Will Genia 6/10
Not quite on song, though even when he's off-key he seems to be hearing secret harmonies. Might have got away with a knock-on at a ruck before Giteau's second try – in a game of decisions that went both ways, that was a kindly one for the Wallabies.
Ben Daley 5/10
Like last week, good round the field and under it at the scrum, although Australia improved. Came up from one collapse looking amusingly dishevelled. Smart player, though, with evident potential.
Saia Faingaa 5/10
Line-outs stood up; struggled in the tight. How important the tight is was shown by the first Wallaby try, from a solid-ish scrum, and the two English penalties which made it 21-20.
Salesi Ma'afu 4/10
Joint prompter of the most amusing referee's remark: "One and three, pushing to the side and going down." That would be a penalty, then. Caught out for Ashton's try but milked a penalty by punching Payne, who bopped him back. An ignoble art learned.
Dean Mumm 5/10
Lumbered up off a short England line-out and – ah. Youngs zipped through and away for his try. A case of a lock leaving the door open.
Nathan Sharpe 6/10
Line-outs were fine. Taken out by Thompson at one first-half ruck, he patted the England hooker on the head when the penalty came, as he knew full well it would.
Rocky Elsom 6/10
Curiously quiet, and not just in the post-match interviews, when his face looked like the proverbial slapped arse. Lost the back-row battle.
David Pocock 6/10
Made a couple of excellent turnovers but Moody had upped his game and the squat little rock Wallaby was not, therefore, the game-breaker of a week before.
Richard Brown 6/10
Lots of line-out work at No 2, in competition with Croft, and some excellent covering back when English kicks didn't find touch. Seems to be an English-style player, in that way.
James Slipper On for Ma'afu, for an amusing little scrap with Wilson. Mark Chisholm A 50th cap, in place of Mumm. Adam Ashley-Cooper On for Ioane. Huia Edmonds On for Faingaa.
Ben Foden 6/10
Solid under the high ball. Maybe he shouldn't have taken a punt on an intercept, and thus not made a tackle, as Giteau scored his second. His loose kick led to that try, too, but he did some very good things elsewhere.
Mark Cueto 6/10
Recipe for brain-ache – trying to remember this one's last run in open field in an England shirt. That said, his kicking from hand was much better this week than last.
Mike Tindall 6/10
Defended well apart from when he and his partner were utterly suckered for the first try – Tindall out, Hape in, Giteau through a hole the size of Sydney Harbour. Oh, well...
Shontayne Hape 7/10
Much more like it, with a fair few of his fabled offloads out of or through or round the tackle. Has things to learn about union but he has learned to ruck like a good 'un.
Chris Ashton 7/10
Lovely finish for his first Test try, in to out and a dive in Ioane's tackle. Joined Hape in some good breakdown work, so he'll now know what a ruck really is – a horrible maelstrom of flying boots and bodies, not a sanitised, safe, rugby league play-the-ball. No.
Toby Flood 7/10
A quicker service from the man inside let him give a quicker service to the men outside. Tweaked something kicking a penalty and retired.
Ben Youngs 8/10
Replacement must have been pre-planned. Had a storming 66 minutes, speeding up his side's ball, scoring a superb try, climbing all over Brown when the Wallabies had scrum ball and prompting Monsieur Poite to tell him, 'I don't need to hear you refereeing'. No, but his forwards do. Excellent.
Tim Payne 7/10
With Cole, a pleasant dilemma at the scrum – who to devour first? Fell into rugby's most annoying trap when Poite told him that though Ma'afu had punched first, he had punched last. Three points to Giteau.
Steve Thompson 6/10
Flew into Sharpe at a ruck, to concede one of a few penalties to have the beardy behemoth bristling belligerently.
Dan Cole 7/10
Took an early whack to his eye and kept having to be patched up. Kept coming back for more, though, which must have been trying for Daley. Again, a notable, muscular contributor in the loose. Again, one irritating scrum penalty conceded, for illegal binding.
Courtney Lawes 7/10
Enormous Saint made a big impression before going off with what looked like cramp – his drive started the build-up to Ashton's try. Not a bad learning experience, all told.
Tom Palmer 7/10
Pass inside to Ashton for the second try was one any lock would boast about. Not much line-out work to do.
Tom Croft 7/10
Topped off an excellent display – including almost all the line-out catches, at two and at the front of a short one for Youngs' try – with a lovely turnover on Genia to snuff out a dangerous late attack.
Lewis Moody 7/10
Lots, lots better than last week, from his wipe-out tackle on Cooper at the off. Crocked himself, as usual, and carried on regardless, as usual.
Nick Easter 7/10
Also lots, lots better – solid under pressure, canny in attack. Simple, and good.
David Wilson On and off and on again for Cole and Payne. Jonny Wilkinson On for Flood. Simon Shaw On for Lawes. Danny Care On for Youngs. Delon Armitage On for Tindall. George Chuter On for Thompson.