Brian Ashton: Bold Wallabies play 30-70 game but won't beat the odds today

Tackling The Issues
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Liverpool 2 Chelsea 0, Fernando Torres back in the swing of things with two wonderful goals.

Why do I mention this? Because it was the only shock result of the weekend. The outcome of the first round of autumn internationals was far more predictable, and while I might have risked a couple of bob on Ireland finding their way past a Springbok outfit shorn of 13 front-line players and coming off the back of a pretty desperate Tri-Nations campaign, the collective scoreline of Southern Hemisphere 3 British Isles 0 did not come as much of a shock. If I'm brutally honest, it came as no shock at all.

One of my reasons for believing Ireland might have flown the flag for rugby in this part of the world was the Lansdowne Road factor, with the national team finally returning to their old/new stadium. Unfortunately for them and their governing body's ticketing policy, it turned out to be an old/new/half-full stadium, and the poor attendance did little to raise the spirits of Brian O'Driscoll's side. There again, I should have known the Boks wouldn't roll over. Some of their more experienced World Cup-winning personnel, Victor Matfield included, had spoken all week about the importance of rediscovering their mental strength through intensive preparation, and that intensity paid off. If they build on it over the next couple of matches, England could find them a real handful later this month.

Which brings me to today's Twickenham visitors, the Wallabies, who continue to fly in the face of orthodoxy and accepted rugby logic in producing some breathtaking attacking play while spending much of their lives under the cosh at the scrum, which has been regarded since time immemorial as the foundation stone of the game. The Australians were completely stuffed in this area by Wales last weekend, just as they had been by England in Perth back in June. (They won that one, as well.) How the hell do they manage it? The explanation is simple, even if the act itself is supremely demanding. They have committed themselves body and soul to playing dynamic rugby, imbued with a sense of attacking purpose, irrespective of what they may or may not achieve at the set piece.

The Will Genia-Quade Cooper-Matt Giteau triangle is at the heart of what they do, and I can't help admiring the variation, the flexibility and the subtlety these exceptional players bring to the game. Add to this the X-factor contribution of a full-back like Kurtley Beale and a wing like James O'Connor, and you begin to understand why the Wallabies feel they can win any match with 30-40 per cent of the ball. It is as though they have set their face against the twin gods of rugby: the god of quality possession and the god of territorial dominance. You have to credit them for their boldness.

In Cardiff, Cooper was again the orchestrator-in-chief, playing his own version of hide and seek, sitting behind the attacking line before appearing quite suddenly in the firing line with all guns loaded. Through this unique approach to positional play, he has been able to develop his general "game sense". For instance, his decision-making when it comes to kicking – when, where and how – has become an important factor in keeping the Wallabies on the front foot even when they're on the back foot at scrum time.

Having said all this, I take England to beat the Aussies this afternoon. Surely, the tourists cannot continue to defy belief, to fly in the face of all tradition, to keep on pulling rugby rabbits out of the hat by winning major Test matches while losing the set-piece contest hands down, conceding territory at every turn and shipping penalties by the dozen? Can they?

In last weekend's game at Twickenham, all eyes were on Sonny Bill Williams, the latest addition to the All Black back line and a much talked about one at that. He did not disappoint. I'd followed his league career with great interest and felt the only question mark over this transition to the union game at Test level was his ability to handle the substantial pressure of making a debut at the home of rugby. Not only did he handle it, he showed enough quality to indicate that he will be an agent of pressure himself in the coming months and years.

We knew all about his physical gifts and we were well aware of his technical attributes – his off-loading skills, in particular. Now, we know something else about him, something that will be the making of him as an All Black. We know he is mentally tough. This is the quality that separates the very best from the massed ranks of the rest, the thing that gives the Daniel Carters of this world their advantage over those who would challenge them. New Zealand now have Williams, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith among their midfield options, with Carter operating inside them. Lucky them.

Marshall, not Carter, had me on the edge of my seat

i often find man-of-the-match plaudits to be a little nonsensical, and the decision to give the award to Dan Carter at Twickenham confirmed me in that view. I've made my admiration for Carter abundantly clear on more than one occasion, but it seemed to me he strolled through last weekend's game, doing rather less than some people seemed to think.

To my mind, the standout New Zealand rugby player of the weekend came from the "other" code. Benji Marshall's performance against Australia in the Four Nations tournament was spellbinding. His array of tricks would have had the late Tommy Cooper on the edge of his seat – with his dancing feet, he had me wondering whether he was Quade Cooper in disguise – and his kicking game, shot through with clever little grubbers and sublime chips, many of them to himself, left the Aussie defence mesmerised. There was something of the one-man band about him, and if he ever follows Sonny Bill across the great divide and goes after a place in the All Black back division, the result could be scary for everyone else.

Win a mixed case of Sharp's beer!

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