England were not quite in "tour of hell" territory - in the annals of English rugby history, the summer tour of the southern hemisphere in 1998 still has "rock-bottom" stamped all over it - but this trip definitely had a whiff of the diabolical about it as it staggered to its close.
The world champions ran smack-bang into a vibrant Wallaby back division in the heartland of the Australian game yesterday and by conceding six tries, three to the South African-born wing Clyde Rathbone, they kissed a last goodbye to the state of grace to which they ascended on that famous night in Sydney seven months ago.
The Wallabies were not on a revenge mission here; Eddie Jones, their coach, had rightly insisted throughout the build-up that this game was about looking straight ahead, not over the shoulder. But his team took deep pleasure in registering a half-century of points against a side boasting the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Ben Cohen and Josh Lewsey. Indeed, the 50 mark meant so much to them that George Gregan, their captain, asked the outstanding Joe Roff to nail it with a long penalty in the third minute of injury time. His decision, and the subsequent goal, brought the house down.
Not that Roff's marksmanship was in any way central to an Australian performance in which pace, footballing excellence and imagination from scrum-half to full-back were the major components. Their play-makers pressed all the right buttons, none more so than the wonderfully sophisticated Stephen Larkham, while the wide runners asked an entire examination's worth of unanswerable questions of a fragile English defence. Rathbone was exceptional, Lote Tuqiri every bit as hot. If the Wallabies had brought such riches to the table last November, England would have struggled to relieve them of the Webb Ellis Cup.
Jones was forced into a late switch of personnel in the minutes before kick-off when Wendell Sailor, the former rugby league wing, suffered a hamstring injury during the warm-up. Rathbone, who captained the Springbok Under-21 team before committing himself to a career with the Wallabies, is a natural centre, but few in the crowd of 52,492 - the biggest ever to watch a union Test in this city - would have guessed it when he romped in for the opening try at the end of the first quarter. Larkham posed the initial threat, Matt Giteau contributed a pass out of contact that bordered on the sublime and Roff appeared in the line to ease the newcomer's jubilant passage to the corner.
When Ben Cohen, who endured almost as rough a night as Andy Gomarsall and the out-of-form Lewsey, was whistled for failing to release the ball after being put under a heap of unnecessary pressure by Tom Voyce, the accomplished Roff kicked a third penalty to open up a lead of 16-3. It looked ominous, and even though Hill found a way across the Wallaby whitewash following a long and patient English attack, Rathbone claimed a second try before the interval after yet more inspired distribution from Larkham.
Dallaglio, his pride not so much wounded as ravaged, demanded an upping of the ante from his countrymen and was rewarded with a close-range try of his own in the early stages of the second half. Matt Dawson, on for the disorganised Gomarsall, tapped a couple of penalties to himself to set the wheels in motion, and with another replacement, Olly Barkley, cutting good angles through the Wallaby midfield, Charlie Hodgson was able to off-load to his captain a couple of metres short of the line.
Nine points adrift at 24-15, there was a faint glimmer of hope for the tourists. But the final 30 minutes amounted to a half-hour too far after Rathbone claimed a third try, this one a top-drawer individual effort that included a chipped kick and a prod towards the in-goal area that would not have looked out of place on the football fields of Portugal. From that point on, Australia were in clover. Jeremy Paul, their substitute hooker, barrelled over for two tries in the space of seven horrible minutes for the English tacklers, who were then exposed to the additional torment of a Tuqiri side-stepping special.
Phil Larder, the coach who introduced the principle of zero-tolerance to England's defensive system, was in despair afterwards. "It is a massive embarrassment," he conceded. "We had people out there who I know to be champion players, and that was not a reflection of their ability."
Larder's boss, Sir Clive Woodward, was equally blunt. "I'm very disappointed," he said. "When we have our best XV on the field and we prepare properly, we tend to win. There is clearly a difference between that best side and our second-string. I couldn't put a price on the experience some of these players have gained on this trip, but right now there are a lot more negatives than positives."
First among the negatives is the paucity of England's back play, which did not stack up in two tryless performances against New Zealand and was exposed in all its impotence by the Wallabies. Woodward claims he can barely wait for the Twickenham internationals against Australia and South Africa in November, but unless he finds himself some backs pretty damned quickly, those Tests will be upon him far too soon for comfort.Reuse content