You cannot overemphasise how important this game against Australia is. It is huge. England came into this series of matches after three difficult games in New Zealand, knowing they could have taken victory from at least one of them. They lost their next two, against the All Blacks again and then South Africa, very narrowly.
Yes, they beat Samoa last weekend but the pressure is on them, and being able to deliver when that pressure comes on is what international rugby is all about. The importance of ending the autumn campaign on a high and going into the Six Nations remembering a win, and playing with confidence, really cannot be overstated. In that respect, the England coach Stuart Lancaster has made some very interesting decisions, and they’re the right ones, too.
Usually, in these series, the players who come in against what must be viewed as the weaker side, in this case Samoa, are there to give the other guys a rest, who then return for the bigger game. Lancaster has clearly seen that the decision-making area – Nos 8,9 and 10 – worked well against Samoa, far better than the combinations he had tried before, and the new guys keep their places.
Ben Morgan, at No 8, made huge strides coming in off the bench for England in the last 18 months. It’s right he starts, as he did last week. Then there’s Ben Youngs at scrum half. People always say about him that he doesn’t get the ball away quickly enough, that he likes to snipe around the base. On Saturday his distribution was so much better. He got the ball away, giving the backs the chance to play.
George Ford at 10 benefited most from the clean ball he received. He had a wonderful game, and proved he was up to the challenge of international rugby. He rode big hits, he bounced back, and he kept a cool head. Ford made breaks and opportunities, and his kicking and passing were excellent. That’s an exciting change for England. He has played himself into a great opportunity now, there is every chance he will start the first game in the Six Nations. Ellery Hanley always told us, when he came in and coached us for a year, that once you had that shirt you don’t let anyone else take it off you. I believe Ford will do that.
It’s tough on Owen Farrell, course it is. But he did not have his best performance against South Africa, and we needed to see someone else have a go in the 10 shirt. With Billy Twelvetrees coming in, it will be interesting to see how his partnership with Brad Barritt goes. It demonstrates the turmoil Lancaster has in that midfield area. He was hoping that the Ford/Farrell combination is one he could go to, but clearly it isn’t.
I’m also disappointed for Kyle Eastmond. I don’t know what he’s like around the squad. Twelvetrees’ work ethic and determination in training is well known. Sometimes that is more important than the skill-set brought to the ground; someone who works tirelessly in training becomes very important. Evidently Billy has impressed Lancaster in training, as he has not been in great form. Brad and Billy are similar in the way they play, and it would be nice to have seen a different style there. Even so, when everyone is fit, I think the combination in the centres will still be Luther Burrell and Manu Tuilagi. Lancaster will also be getting excited about former league player Sam Burgess, who is on the bench at Bath on Friday night.
As for the game itself, these are two evenly matched sides. They are both at a similar place, with neither in top form. Australia have a more dangerous attacking line than we do at the moment, but they haven’t really been at the races over the course of these matches.
So what must England do differently? They have to take the points that are on offer. In every game so far, that is what has cost them. Against New Zealand, Mike Brown dropped the ball, and Jonny May made an error too. Against South Africa, Dave Attwood missed a golden opportunity. In addition, points were not taken with the boot. It’s all about being accurate when you have the opportunity to score.
The game to some extent will be overshadowed by the tragic accident that has devastated Australia, and their national sport, and it’s right that it should do so. It’s hard to find any words for what has happened to Phil Hughes. A young man, killed in a tragic accident doing something that he loved. You have to feel hugely for the bowler, Sean Abbott, as well.
It’s something you never expect to happen when you’re playing sport. And it’s quite right that the Australian rugby team and the sporting world have got behind Phil and his family. It does remind you how lucky you are, and how lucky I was, to have the opportunity to play for my country so many times. Whenever it’s England v Australia, the media steps up, the pressure comes on. Then something like this happens. Yes, this is a game that England must win, but it makes you remember it’s only that – a game.Reuse content