It must have been a bad night for the English in Brisbane - at the after-match presentation John Howard was grinning from ear to ear. "It is certainly a very different feeling from the last time I met the Australian prime minister," said England's captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, with a thin smile.
The last time England met Mr Howard, he had, unsmilingly, to hand them their World Cup winners' medals. That night, in Sydney in November, seems a long time ago. Yesterday the Wallabies won 51-15 against an England side out on their feet and down on their luck.
"We were clearly not up to the mark," said England's coach, Sir Clive Woodward, after watching Australia's Joe Roff kick a late penalty to bring up a particularly ignominious half-century of points. "It's been a tough end to the season and we've been found out."
Found out? Rugby's southern superpowers certainly suspect that England's World Cup win was little more than the grandest confidence trick. New Zealand scored eight tries to none in two Tests; the Wallabies six to two in one. Add to that the 2-0 series losses suffered by the Scots and the Irish in Australia and South Africa respectively, and the 53-18 pummelling given to Wales by the Springboks yesterday, and it seems rugby's old order, far from yielding to the new as many expected after the World Cup, has simply re-asserted itself. The north is looking horribly exposed again.
In Brisbane, England's leaders did their best to stay bullish. "Clearly we have had a disappointing run of results since the World Cup and we have to address that," said Woodward. "But when we are at our best and when we have prepared properly we feel we can win."
"We all know we have played a lot of rugby this season," added Dallaglio. "We made ourselves available and we came over here genuinely feeling that we had a squad capable of winning the games. We will come back a lot stronger. The challenge for us now is to go away, work incredibly hard and get back where we need to be in terms of our standards."
The Wallabies and Springboks are due at Twickenham in the autumn, at the end of their own long seasons. England, with a post-World Cup record of played eight, won three (against Italy, Scotland and Wales), know the importance of winning those two games. Their reputation depends on it.
There was one final blow for England's battered pride to contemplate on the plane home. Not from Mr Howard, but from Australia's coach. Eddie Jones, the king of kidology and the sultan of press conference spin, kept a perfectly straight face as he downplayed the impact of his side's superb performance.
"I am surprised by the margin," he said. "But nothing changes what happened in the World Cup final. This was a one-off game for the Cook Cup and we won it. It has no relevance at all to the World Cup." England know different. This tour has knocked their World Cup crown rather askew. They will have to work horribly hard to put it straight again.Reuse content