It is almost exactly a decade since the England captain Martin Johnson laid hands on the World Cup, in case you hadn’t noticed, and as the old Leicester hard-head led his band of beaten-up brothers around Twickenham on one last parade in front of the massed ranks of the red-rose public, the mind’s eye slowly refocused itself on the terrible beauty of their rugby. They knew how to win ugly, those blokes: at times, they made the Medusa of legend look like a catwalk queen.
A good few of them would have relished the current team’s second-half performance in the 20-13 win over the Wallabies – albeit a Wallaby side of unusually poor vintage. Jason Robinson might have wondered what the hell he was watching and why, for there was precious little in England’s attacking game to lift the spirits amid the crunch of bone on bone and the smack of muscle on muscle, but for every razzle-dazzler like Robinson, there was a Johnson, a Jason Leonard, a Neil Back and a Lawrence Dallaglio who found something dark and brutal to admire.
Assuming they had sobered up from the black-tie anniversary banquet of the night before, they might even have recognised something of their own victory over the Wallabies in the autumn of 2001, at precisely this point in the World Cup cycle. They edged that game by a similar scoreline of 21-15, despite losing the try count two-zip, and did so in much the same kind of way: by dominating at close quarters, winning the kicking duel and committing themselves mind, body and soul to their defensive duties when called upon to do so.
There were grumbles about dodgy tries in both games, although this time it was the Australians doing the moaning. A dozen years ago, the then unknighted Clive Woodward went off the deep end about some blatant Wallaby obstruction that eased the full-back Matthew Burke’s journey to the England goal-line. On Saturday evening, the visiting coach, Ewen McKenzie, could be heard questioning the red-rose hooker Dylan Hartley's crafty hand in the build-up to Owen Farrell’s decisive show-and-go score.
McKenzie also had his misgivings over England’s opening try early in the second half, and with good reason. Mike Brown, the Harlequins full-back, who fought the good fight even more passionately than usual and beat the magnificent flankers Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood to the man-of-the-match bubbly as a consequence, clearly had a foot in touch as he fielded a Wallaby penalty punt to the corner before bouncing his way out of the red zone like a souped-up dodgem car.
A number of things came from this error of judgement by the officials – so much technology, such poor eyesight – and none of them did the Wallabies any favours. Scott Fardy, their flanker, finished a distant second in a collision with Brown and left the field on a stretcher; 90 metres of territory was lost to the tourists; and England were suddenly in a prime attacking position – a position from which Courtney Lawes was able to invade Ben Mowen's space at the line-out, which forced Will Genia into fluffing a panicky clearance kick, which in turn presented Robshaw with his first Test try.
For all the injustice of it, only the most stubborn of misanthropes would have begrudged the captain his glimpse of sporting heaven. Robshaw may not be everyone’s cup of tea as an open-side flanker, but after struggling to keep his head above water in last year's version of this fixture – Michael Hooper, an out-and-out loose forward who loves nothing better to roam far and wide, played that game in entirely different areas of the field – he was a hands-down winner over the Sydneysider this time.
As is his wont, Robshaw made next to nothing of losing his cherry as a points-scorer at international level. "Depending on how long we stay up, it could be a 60-metre solo effort by the end of the night," he said with the ironic smile of a man whose trip to the line had covered barely 60 centimetres. "What really pleased me was our character. We were annoyed by the try we conceded, but from that came a real sense of pride in defending our line.
"They're always difficult, these games between two sides in very different places: they've played a lot of rugby together and are coming to the end of a season; we had two weeks of preparation, but are pretty fresh. All I know is that Wallaby sides always know how to score, given the opportunity. We denied them that opportunity during the second half and we can take satisfaction from that. Like a lot of other people in this team, I didn't know what it was to beat Australia before today. It’s my first time, and it feels good."
England’s back line may not have tripped the light fantastic – at times, they struggled to trip the light mediocre – and a couple of players will be feeling flat as a result. Lee Dickson's work rate was off the scale as usual, but try as he might the scrum-half could not find a switch to flick as he sought to raise the tempo. Billy Twelvetrees, meanwhile, fluffed an important tackle on his opposite number Matt Toomua close to the line, although the Wallaby centre probably had the scoring momentum anyway, and made one or two other errors of the glaringly public variety.
Yet in Farrell and Brown, there was more than a hint of the bloody-mindedness that made Jonny Wilkinson and Josh Lewsey such formidable competitors in the build-up to 2003. "When you’re doing the hard yards up front, it’s reassuring to have people like that behind you," Robshaw said. "When the ball is booted over your head and Israel Folau and Adam Ashley-Cooper are charging after it with their brilliant aerial games, you need some resilience in the back field. When you look at the way those guys defend… it’s what I mean by character."
That vitally important c-word goes to the heart of the matter. England teams have not always found it easy, or indeed possible, to wipe out a seven-point deficit against one of the major southern hemisphere powers, or play an entire half of rugby without conceding. For most, such deeds were barely imaginable, the stuff of miracles. Yet whatever this side are lacking in show-stopping pizzazz, they believe in what they are doing… and in each other. And when fine margins are in play, that is more than half the battle.
England: Tries Robshaw, Farrell; Conversions Farrell 2; Penalties Farrell 2. Australia: Try Toomua; Conversion Cooper; Penalties Cooper 2.
England: M Brown (Harlequins); C Ashton (Saracens), J Tomkins (Saracens), W Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Yarde (London Irish); O Farrell (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton); M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: B Youngs (Leicester) for Dickson, 54; J Marler (Harlequins) for M Vunipola, 54; D Hartley (Northampton) for T Youngs, 54; T Flood (Leicester) for Twelvetrees, 66; D Wilson (Bath) for Cole, 66; B Morgan (Gloucester) for B Vunipola, 66; D Attwood (Bath) for Launchbury, 75.
Australia: I Folau (NSW Waratahs); A Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs), T Kuridrani (Queensland Reds), M Toomua (ACT Brumbies), N Cummins (Western Force); Q Cooper (Reds), W Genia (Reds); J Slipper (Reds), S Moore (Brumbies), B Alexander (Brumbies), S Timani (Waratahs), J Horwill (Reds), S Fardy (Brumbies), M Hooper (Waratahs), B Mowen (Brumbies, capt). Replacements: B Foley (Waratahs) for Ashley-Cooper, 49-53; S Kepu (Waratahs) for Alexander, 49; B McCalman (Force) for Fardy, 49; B Robinson (Waratahs) for Slipper, 58; K Douglas (Waratahs) for Timani, 62; N White (Brumbies) for Genia, 66; S Fainga’a (Reds) for Moore, 68.
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).