Johnson the force behind rise of the red rose

Australia 14 England 25

England will face a very different Australia, if they face them at all, come the World Cup in October. The Wallabies will have their first-choice flankers restored to fitness, a full-time goal-kicker at the ready and an outside-half renowned for hitting his target with a subtle pass rather than a forearm smash. They may even have some momentum behind them, assuming the rugby league brigade - Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers, Lote Tuqiri - continue to develop their union skills in the forthcoming Tri-Nations tournament. They will not have Martin Johnson, though. Martin Johnson belongs to the old country, and he is worth a dozen of everyone else.

It can now be said with complete confidence that Johnson is the finest captain, and probably the most influential player, produced by England since Wavell Wakefield, that baggy-shorted sporting icon of the 1920s. He may be the best since William Webb Ellis, dammit, especially now he has discovered the joys of picking up the ball and running with it. Seven days after leading his country to a first Test victory in New Zealand for three decades, he jutted his jaw and furrowed his brow a second time and set about demolishing the one remaining wall of rugby's Jericho. Forty years on from the first of their 10 failures, a red rose team have finally won an international in Wallaby country.

After a week of southern hemisphere spin, salted with sneers and peppered with insults both implied and stated, it took England precisely five minutes to tell their hosts where they could stick their superiority complex. All the barbed phrases and dismissive descriptions - "gargoyles", "white orcs on steroids", "limited", "boring", "one-dimensional" - disappeared into the ether as Johnson, that very epitome of the unsmiling rucker and mauler, handled four times in the 13-phase creation of Will Greenwood's exceptional opening try. The captain is no oil painting - come to think of it, the use of the word "gargoyle" was inaccurate only in its measure of generosity - but his contribution was undeniably a thing of beauty.

He continued in the same vein throughout. His work at the front of a highly competitive line-out brought back memories of the 1993 Lions and their famous victory over Sean Fitzpatrick's All Blacks in Wellington - he was just a boy then, bless him, with one England cap to his name - while his scrummaging was as forth-right and vigorous as ever. He played with his customary ferocity, operating at the very limits of legality and occasionally sliding one of his size 12s over the edge. Most impressively of all, he carried the ball miles. A noted authority on American football, he played like a running back.

"You blokes see him out on the pitch, where he's as good as any player in the world and better than most," said Clive Woodward, the England coach. "I have the good fortune to see him behind the scenes, where he is at his very best. He is an absolutely brilliant leader - I'm not exaggerating here, I promise you - and he's getting better. Don't let anyone tell you that the World Cup will be a tournament too far for him, that at 33 he won't last in the heat of an Australian summer. He's in the best shape of his life, he's being handled properly by some real professionals in the back-up team and he's hitting every target we set him. I'm glad he's on our side, that's for sure."

Given Australia's frailties in midfield, where Nathan Grey was press-ganged into service at stand-off because of various injuries and suspensions, England might have lived down to the expectations of their hosts and played 80 minutes of keep-ball. Their forward pack, in which the recalled Trevor Woodman shone almost as brightly as his captain and Steve Thompson continued his one-man rampage through the great rugby citadels of the world, were certainly capable of seizing the Wallabies by the short and curlies and bringing tears to their eyes.

But Woodward, heartily sick of being told that his team were incapable of putting on a show - that they were piano-shifters rather than piano players, more Pickford's than Pollini - was determined to the point of obsession that this game would be won in the grand manner. What transpired was as grand as it gets. Until the sixth minute of injury time, England were three-zip ahead on tries and out of sight on the scoreboard. Even when the powerful Sailor wrong-footed both Lawrence Dallaglio and Matthew Dawson to claim a consolation try, the tourists replied with a last penalty from Jonny Wilkinson, who had been on the depressing end of a 76-0 beating in Brisbane five years previously.

That kick, smack in front of the posts, was a no-brainer for the most accurate marksman in the world game; Wilkinson could have chipped it over with a flick of his left foot while curled up in bed. Instead, he struck it so hard that they are still looking for the ball, somewhere in the bushland of rural Victoria. "I've never seen Jonny strike one like that," Woodward beamed, before adding rather mysteriously: "That was the kick that smashed the skeletons." Pick the bones out of that, if you can.

Greenwood's early try to the left of the posts was the culmination of an entire season's work on the international field. It had everything, pretty much - the running was quick and direct, the ball-retention and ruck-clearing well nigh perfect from a technical point of view, the support work as intelligent as it was instant. Greenwood might have completed the score earlier in the move, as might Kyran Bracken, but when the ball went left for the umpteenth time and Ben Cohen flicked up one last inspired pass from the floor, not even a Wallaby defence boasting Grey and Steve Kefu could dredge up another tackle.

With Joe Roff threatening all manner of mayhem on the left wing - back in Australian colours after a season in Biarritz, he looks every inch a World Cup force in waiting - England could ill afford to get carried away with expansive intent. Johnson was more aware than anyone of the danger of the situation, so he ordered his forwards to impose themselves on the Wallabies with a series of churning close-quarter drives off scrum and line-out. The forward pressure earned Mike Tindall a supremely executed try just after the half-hour - quality passes from Wilkinson and Greenwood were the feature presentations - and England might have reached the interval 20 points ahead but for a fumble here and a wrong option there.

Two penalties from Roff in the first 11 minutes of the second half concentrated English minds, however. Wilkinson, barely bothered by the gale-force wind in Wellington a week previously, was never likely to fluff his lines under the closed roof of the Docklands Stadium, and he duly pinged a 34-metre penalty midway through the third quarter to reopen a six-point advantage. He then delivered a real footballer's pass to give Ben Cohen a line on the scrambling Kefu, and the Northampton wing cruised around Chris Latham from 30 metres to nail down the victory.

"Set-piece play is everything, and England won 57 per cent of it," said Eddie Jones, the Wallaby coach, an hour after the final whistle. Even in defeat, he could not quite bring himself to admit that the tourists had brought more to the party than a muscle-bound scrum full of pug-ugly yeomen of the shires. But England have beaten Australia four times on the bounce now, and they have done it every which way. It may be difficult to take down south, but the facts are clear. Right now, Woodward's team are the best - and there is no obvious reason to think it will be any different five months from now.

Australia 14
Try: Sailor
Pens: Roff 3

England 25
Tries: Greenwood, Tindall, Cohen. Cons: Wilkinson 2. Pens: Wilkinson 2

Half-time: 3-12 Attendance: 54,868

AUSTRALIA: C Latham (Queensland); W Sailor (Queensland), M Turinui (New South Wales), S Kefu (Queensland), J Roff (ACT); N Grey (New South Wales), G Gregan (ACT, capt); W Young (ACT), J Paul (ACT), P Noriega (New South Wales), D Giffin (ACT), N Sharpe (Queensland), D Lyons (New South Wales), P Waugh (New South Wales), T Kefu (Queensland). Replacements: D Vickerman (ACT) for Sharpe, 45; B Cannon (New South Wales) for Paul, 54; M Rogers (New South Wales) for Turinui, 60; L Tuqiri (New South Wales) for Grey, 69; B Darwin (ACT) for Noriega, 69.

ENGLAND: J Lewsey (Wasps); J Robinson (Sale), M Tindall (Bath), W Greenwood (Harlequins), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: M Dawson (Northampton) for Bracken, 54; J Worsley (Wasps) for Hill, 54; S Borthwick (Bath) for Kay, 66-73.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).

REACTION FROM AUSTRALIA

Those in the southern hemisphere who have lampooned this England team for so long have to admit begrudgingly that this is a special side, capable of becoming the first nation from the north to raise the World Cup. There were still doubts as the All Blacks were way off-colour in Wellington. But on Saturday Australia were on their game and were overhauled by a far more capable and clever opposition.

GREG GROWDEN Sun-Herald (Sydney)

Forget all the talk about Jonny Wilkinson's boot; this England side's secret is not the kicking machine in the No 10 shirt, but sheer, collective resolve.

IAN GILBERT The Age (Melbourne)

Australia's World Cup defence will be based on quicksand if Saturday's mauling of their forwards is a preview of what's to follow. England had six thirtysomethings in their side last night. But age has clearly not wearied them. For Australia, it is back to square one. Without a scrum and line-out, the Wallabies will struggle to retain their world crown.

PETER JENKINS Sunday Times (Perth)

England's pack, in a performance in which it dominated and then crushed the Wallabies pack, exemplified the age-old rugby truth that great forward packs win important matches.

SPIRO ZAVOS Rugby Heaven

Comments