Paul the fall guy as England pay for Robinson's blunder

England 19 - Australia 21
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The Independent Online

It was David Bowie who remarked that "the act of creating is as integral a part of life as going to the lavatory". Presumably, the England coaches decided Henry Paul had got the two mixed up when they withdrew him from the field after 24 minutes of another deeply absorbing afternoon's pushing and shoving between these most bitter of rugby rivals.

It was David Bowie who remarked that "the act of creating is as integral a part of life as going to the lavatory". Presumably, the England coaches decided Henry Paul had got the two mixed up when they withdrew him from the field after 24 minutes of another deeply absorbing afternoon's pushing and shoving between these most bitter of rugby rivals. By making the call when they did, at a stage of a Test match so premature it bordered on the embryonic, they left themselves hostages to fortune - and at the death, they could not raise enough to pay the ransom.

Paul did indeed create during his brief stint of active service, and since this was precisely what he was selected to do, it seemed more than a trifle harsh to subject him to such public humiliation as a result of his doing it. "I was," he admitted, "a bit surprised."

A bit? The poor bloke was on the brink of tears when he materialised outside Twickenham's swankiest function room, full of VIP know-alls just bursting to interrogate him about the slings and arrows of sporting fortune. Just at that moment, the Gloucester centre must have wished he had kept on walking when he was summoned from the field. Had he done so, he might already have reached the M4.

By trading the high-risk Paul for Will Greenwood - another million-dollar pass specialist, albeit one 49 caps further down the international road - England left themselves without meaningful cover at outside-half, and without a second front-line goal-kicker. Ultimately, this cost them the result they craved ahead of next year's Six Nations Championship, for Charlie Hodgson, wonderfully inventive in open field but deeply flawed in front of the sticks, ended up as broken in body as he was wayward in his marksmanship, leaving the world champions bereft on both counts.

As an example of Sod's Law, this just about took the chocolate digestive. On any other day the head coach Andy Robinson and the rest of the red rose politburo might have escaped the worst repercussions of their actions, but there was no tunnel under the wire here. England spent the closing minutes with a scrum-half, Andy Gomarsall, in the all-important stand-off position - had there been the whiff of a drop-goal opportunity to win the game, a list of those equipped to take the responsibility would have resembled that of world-class Egyptian ski-jumpers - and Mike Tindall doing the place-kicking in true hit-and-hope fashion. By contrast, the Wallabies had Matt Giteau on the field.

The 2007 World Cup could well turn out to be Giteau's tournament. The 22-year-old midfielder from Canberra certainly had all the answers to all the questions on Saturday, creating a wonderful opening try as early as the 15th minute and kicking two killer penalties in the final quarter to spike England's valiant response to a 15-point deficit that would have rendered a less spirited team wholly impotent. Like the home side, Australia lost their outside-half - Elton Flatley, England's chief tormentor in the World Cup final, damaged his knee ligaments during the initial skirmishes and disappeared at precisely the same moment as Paul. Unlike their hosts, they did not throw their insurance policy out with the trash. Giteau's move from inside-centre to outside-half was entirely glitch-free.

Robinson knew that his judgement would be questioned during the after-match formalities and he came prepared. "It would be very easy for me to say what you want me to say - that I made the wrong call," he pronounced. "But I don't think I did make the wrong call. International rugby is an unforgiving place and every action has its consequences, as I'm finding out right now.

"But I'm not the sort to shy away from decisions I feel have to be made, especially when I'm paid to make them. Henry made some mistakes, so we changed things. Anyway, it was more about what we believed Will would bring to the game. That's what the bench is for."

In which case, Robinson would have been well-advised to arm himself with a more flexible collection of bench-bunnies. Given the potential for serious injury at Test level, no coach can hope to cover all the bases. But if there is the merest hint of a possibility of a tactical change of such magnitude in such a position, it is gormless in the extreme to ignore the outside-half and goal-kicking roles in choosing seven replacements.

Eddie Jones, the Wallaby coach, was "not 100 per cent surprised" that Paul failed to go the distance, but he must have been joyously flabbergasted at the English formation that ended the game.

Understandably, Robinson and his colleagues were keen to talk up the positives of their team's performance, and in fairness, there were plenty of them. As expected, the English tight forwards achieved such mastery over their direct opponents that they rolled in two tries from driving mauls off the line-out. Less predictably, they scored a breathtaking third try by outflanking the most parsimonious defence in international rugby. Hodgson's cut-out pass to the roaming Josh Lewsey was millimetre-perfect, and a couple of beautifully realised draw-and-give routines gave Mark Cueto a clear run to the line. There may have been a more satisfying English score in living memory, depending on the kind of rugby that floats the boat of any given individual. There again, there may not.

Yet it is the negatives that must hold sway in Robinson's "unforgiving" world, for these are the items most prominently recorded in the ledger. Three horribly public missed tackles - by Tindall, Gomarsall and Joe Worsley - contributed every bit as much to Jeremy Paul's first strike as the divine vision of Giteau; another defensive howler, this one by Lewsey, presented Chris Latham with a second Australian score as surely as Gomarsall's bone-headedly undisciplined late hit on Giteau allowed the match-winning Wallaby his decisive shot at goal with seven minutes left on the clock.

Perhaps more worrying from a strategic point of view was the inability of the English loose forwards to deal effectively with those scavengers supreme, George Smith and Phil Waugh, at the breakdown. Smith, in particular, turned in a staggering performance. He may have looked like a fruitcake with his daft pineapple hair-do bobbing in the breeze, but by the time he had finished turning over possession by the cartload, the likes of Worsley and Lewis Moody were the ones in need of love and understanding.

England had talked up this fixture as a "payback" opportunity following their 50-point humiliation in Brisbane last June. Had this inspired the Wallabies to heights they had not scaled at Twickenham since 1998? "Mate, I didn't hear of anyone talking about a payback," grinned a jubilant Jones. "And to be honest, there are too many papers in England for us to read." Yeah, yeah. Jones will be reading them today, from cover to cover. Robinson, meanwhile, will be hoping for a news black-out.

ENGLAND: J Robinson (Sale, capt); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Bath), H Paul (Gloucester), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale), A Gomarsall (Gloucester); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester). Replacements: W Greenwood (Harlequins) for Paul, 24; H Ellis (Leicester) for Hodgson, 70; B Cohen (Northampton) for Cueto, 74.

AUSTRALIA: C Latham (Queensland); W Sailor (Queensland), M Turinui (New South Wales), M Giteau (ACT), L Tuqiri (New South Wales); E Flatley (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT, capt); W Young (ACT), J Paul (ACT), A Baxter (New South Wales), J Harrison (New South Wales), D Vickerman (New South Wales), G Smith (ACT), P Waugh (New South Wales), D Lyons (New South Wales). Replacements: M Rogers (New South Wales) for Flatley, 24; M Dunning (New South Wales) for Young 62; S Hoiles (New South Wales) for Lyons 74.

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).