It goes without saying that this afternoon's Twickenham international between England and Australia is an important one for both countries as they seek to build confidence and continuity ahead of the next World Cup, but I have to confess that it's more difficult than usual to take a firm view on how things will turn out. A big part of me struggles to see the Wallabies winning, for reasons I will explain. There again, there is always something perilous about writing off any Australian team ahead of the event.
Watching the tourists slide to another defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in Tokyo last weekend, it struck me that the most consistent thing about them was their inconsistency. There were some purple patches, especially early on, but there was no sign of them maintaining their rhythm or showing the kind of sustained attacking fluidity we've come to associate with Wallaby sides down the years. While they demonstrated an ability to keep the ball through a number of phases, these passages either fizzled out through the lack of a cutting edge – very un-Australian – or ended abruptly with a turnover. At times, I wondered whether I was watching an American football outfit rather than a rugby side: it was as if one team left the field after a while, to be replaced by another wholly different in character and approach.
When I coached against the Wallabies in the past, there were always certain givens. I knew they would be extremely physical and challenging in the tackle area, that their line-out would be highly effective, and that, with John Muggleton setting the highest standards as a defence coach, there would be no question of them being easy to break down. Also, there was a feeling that whatever their problems in the tight-forward department, they would somehow find a way to win unless you kept the lid on them for the entire 80 minutes.
Do these tourists possess those time-honoured qualities? I wonder. One of the explanations for the stop-start nature of their game in recent weeks might be the presence of a relatively new coach in Robbie Deans, who comes from the New Zealand tradition and is introducing new ideas, new methods. More than that, though, I look at the players they have lost since the last World Cup: George Gregan and Stephen Larkham; Chris Latham and Lote Tuqiri; more recently, the unfit Stirling Mortlock. Take these people, with their hundreds of caps, out of a team without great strength in depth and the problem is obvious.
They have also lost the two second-row forwards who, until recently, gave them an abrasive edge: Dan Vickerman to Cambridge University, the outstanding Nathan Sharpe to injury. To make matters worse, their gifted centre Berrick Barnes was invalided out of the tour just before the Tokyo fixture. In terms of the key decision-making positions, they have a youngster at scrum-half and a part-timer at No 12. As a consequence, an awful lot rests on the shoulders of Matt Giteau at outside-half.
Now, Giteau is quite something, standing in the great tradition of Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and Larkham, his immediate predecessor. He is one of the outstanding individuals in world rugby, not just in terms of his skill set but also his character. He is a courageous player in every sense: brave in the tackle and prepared to take the ball to the line and challenge a defence, as well as willing to back his powers of invention and try something different. But even for a player blessed with Giteau's gifts, it is a huge ask to make all the calls and shoulder all the responsibility.
Put all the negatives of last week's display together – the hot-and-cold aspect of their play, their difficulties at the line-out, the failure to convert pressure into points, the defensive fragility late whenever the All Blacks played with real dynamic intent – and it is tempting to suggest that England have the winning of today's game. And yet, there are a couple of things to set against that conclusion.
First, Australia come with the advantage of having played a good deal of rugby in recent weeks, all at a high level of intensity. Secondly, they are probably due a victory. Thirdly, these are the Wallabies we're talking about – a team who have demonstrated, time and again, an ability to win matches they have no obvious right to win. If England drop their guard for a moment, they will pay the price.
All Blacks coaches in the spotlight
Those other Antipodeans, the New Zealanders, are also here in Britain and while they didn't have the best of Tri-Nations, the mindset that allows them to attack from anywhere on the field will make them worth watching. Speaking as a coach, I'm particularly keen to see how they operate under the new division of responsibilities introduced by Graham Henry (above).
The new system, geared towards freshening up the coaching environment, sees Graham handling the forwards, Wayne Smith moving from attack to defence and Steve Hansen shifting from the pack to the attack. To me, it is another example of the flexible approach that has become a hallmark of All Black rugby. Might it also be a case of Graham signalling a two-fingered farewell to the era of dyed-in-the-wool, one-trick specialist coaches?Reuse content