England’s wait for a full 80-minute performance continued as they were forced to overcome a laboured first-half display against Australia, but they turned on the after-burners in the second period to inflict a 37-18 defeat on the Wallabies and secure a sixth consecutive win in this fixture.
By all accounts it was a strong day at the office for England, with four tries through Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Joe Cokanasiga and Owen Farrell, and the long-awaited return of Manu Tuilagi. But two Israel Folau tries saw the visitors make a good fight of it, only to be blown away in the second half.
That followed yet another controversial tackle from Farrell on the stroke of half-time - which will no doubt dominate the fallout of the match as it did earlier this month - but after starting off 2018 with five defeats in eight games, it seems this run of form has England back on track for the Rugby World Cup next September.
It was déjà vu for England as they exploded out of the blocks, just as they did against Japan last week. From attempting to clear the kick-off, Ben Youngs was able to charge down Bernard Foley on his own line with Kyle Sinckler in close company to force the five metre scrum. In truth, England could have kept the ball in the scrum as they marched forward, but Mark Wilson elected to take the ball out to the blindside and shifted the ball through the hands of Youngs, who could have scored himself, to May to finish in the corner with just 131 seconds on the clock.
However, the familiar feeling continued as England again started to switch off. Australia hit back immediately with a penalty from Toomua, with the defence caught offside, and rather unusually Farrell saw his first attempt from a relatively simple distance strike the upright. Michael Hooper’s indiscretion in sealing off the ruck after Ben Te’o and Henry Slade smashed Folau went unpunished.
The England captain made up for his error two minutes later when Sekope Kepu strayed offside at a maul as he restored the seven-point advantage, but further points went astray when Daly’s long-range effort from 54 metres out came up short and wide, and England would be made to pay for their sloppiness.
Firstly it was Ben Te’o at fault as his scripted move saw Will Genia, making his 100th appearance at just 30 years of age, pick off his inside ball to Cokanasiga and sprint away. Farrell and Jamie George were in attendance to ensure he didn’t go the distance. His pass right to Foley was poor and thus saw the centre hack it on, with George eventually picking up possession.
If that was the first warning, the second should have sent out the alarm bells. Just shy of the half-hour mark Australia finally started to keep the ball in hand and attacked right, with Dane Haylett-Petty coming in off his wing and throwing a wide pass to Samu Kerevi. It looked forwards immediately, but play continued and Kerevi sprinted to the try line before offloading back to the wing to score. Referee Peyper, evidently unsure on the pass, asked for assistant referee Glen Jackson’s view and the former Kiwi fly-half gave the thumbs up, much to Twickenham’s bemusement. Despite the doubts, Toomua took an age with the conversion - enough time for a replay to be shown that clearly displayed a forward pass - and Peyper called for a subsequent TMO review that chalked it off.
It should have kicked England back into life and that appeared the case when Farrell put another three on the scoreboard when Adam Coleman upended Daly. But the tide turned two minutes later.
Australia put together their best phase of the match as a sweeping move from a lineout on the right of the field spread left, with Folau’s cunning offload releasing Jack Maddocks. Back the ball came, and as Itoje rushed up he exposed himself to the brilliance of Folau, who spotted the gap, cut inside Farrell and sidestepped the covering Youngs to score as full-back. Say what you want about Folau, he is a heck of a finisher.
There was enough time left in the half for Toomua to strike a penalty to level the scores after England were again caught offside, but it could and should have been more. Three weeks ago the game against South Africa hinged on a last-play tackle from Farrell. He may have got away with a shoulder charge on Andre Esterhuizen then, but it is not something that Eddie Jones will want to see every week.
Yet when Izack Rodda broke through the line, Farrell again hit his opponent shoulder-first, stopping the lock on the line and preventing a certain try. The Wallabies protested vehemently, with Hooper insisting “he’s just leading with the shoulder and it’s dangerous”, but Peyper wasn’t interested. Sir Clive Woodward was, though, with the former England coach turned TV pundit agreeing with Will Greenwood and Michael Lynagh that “it’s a penalty try, definitely”.
It was the match-defining moment as after the break the Wallabies simply weren’t in the contest. The first telling blow came just three minutes into the half as England put together one of the slick back-line moves that they have proven to have in the locker over the last three years. Farrell smartly dummied to Slade that attracted Toomua’s attentions, and his delayed offload to Daly released the full-back to carve between Tolu Latu and Foley and round Haylett-Petty to score.
It opened the floodgates. A strong run from the base of the scrum by No 8 Mark Wilson pierced the Australian defence in the 56th minute, and when it came left Cokanasiga gratefully bounced off the attempted tackle from Haylett-Petty to spring through to score his second try in as many appearances. But he should have had another five minutes later as his brilliant leaping catch over the head of Foley gave him the space to charge home from halfway, only for the 19-stone wing to make the wrong decision in trying to steam over Haylett-Petty and Hooper, being stopped inches short.
It should have been seven points but instead it was three as Farrell kicked his third penalty from an ensuing scrum infringement from Scott Sio. But from potentially leading at the break, Australia found themselves 30-13 down and out of the contest.
There was still time for the loudest cheer of the day as Tuilagi ended his two-and-a-half year wait for international rugby for an 11-minute cameo, and it was his presence in the line that sucked in the Wallabies defence and allowed George Ford to send Farrell through for England’s fourth and final try - only after May saw his second of the day agonisingly chalked off following an 80-metre sprint after Slade’s kick, with a TMO check proving the ball touched the line as it bounced up-field.
Folau added his second try with the final play of the game as a mere consolation, but these are worrying times for the Wallabies after sinking to a sixth straight defeat against England. For Jones’ side, they signed off a difficult 2018 in style.
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