Authors: Rio Sports
To say the weekend’s other games in Cardiff, Dublin and Paris put England’s opening autumn effort into sharp perspective is the understatement of the season. When Eddie Jones called it “a grindathon” he was being generous and the contest with Australia on Saturday will end unhappily unless his team show more dynamism up front and locate some rhythm behind. The frustrated head coach’s blunt second-half outburst – “How fucking stupid are we?” – did not bode well, either.
As anyone who stayed awake long enough will testify there was, literally, a yawning gap between England’s pre‑match rhetoric and what they ultimately delivered at Twickenham. One post-match suggestion was that it was all a devilish Jones masterplan to lull the Wallabies into a sense of false security.
In fairness England’s defence was largely excellent and Sam Underhill and Nathan Hughes both enhanced their reputations in the back row. England remain unbeaten at home under Jones and have now won 20 of their 21 internationals since the Australian took over. Against the Wallabies, even so, England will be under pressure to disprove the niggling theory that their rate of progress is slowing and that they are overly reliant on their three Saracens’ musketeers, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the injured Billy Vunipola.
That was certainly the verdict of the Twickenham jury on Saturday, with the stadium atmosphere about as animated as a fortnightly bridge night in Stow-on-the-Wold. England’s backs appeared to have been only recently introduced to each other and by far the most dramatic flourish came when a frustrated Jones was caught on camera slamming down his notebook like a holidaymaker who has reached the check-in desk only to realise all his family’s passports are sitting on the kitchen table.
Without the arrival of one or two lively English substitutes, most notably Alex Lozowski whose swift identification of a midfield mismatch established the bridgehead from which Semesa Rokoduguni, still a serving soldier in the British Army, scored his clinching try, it would have been the least memorable of Remembrance weekend games. Even that did not assist Jones much; if Lozowski starts it can only be instead of either Farrell or George Ford while Rokoduguni’s three tries in three Tests have taken three years to amass.
There was, in short, very little of the collective urgency displayed by Ireland against South Africa in Dublin, a game which also subverted many of the available excuses for England’s sluggishness. All the Irish Lions looked bang up for it, their midfield made a major impact and Joe Schmidt’s side look to be on the up. England, restricted to 37% possession, may officially be the world’s second highest-ranked team but, rust or no rust, they are not consistently playing like it.
That is probably reason enough to recall Farrell, a water-boy on Saturday, and Itoje to the starting XV to face the Wallabies. Assuming Mike Brown recovers sufficiently from a nasty early tumble and Jonny May’s hamstring recovers, Jones will then have a key judgment call to make. While Henry Slade did not enjoy his greatest day in a home midfield handicapped by the twin shackles of slow ball and limited game-time together, there remains a good case for starting him at No13 alongside Farrell and retaining Lozowski on the bench for another second-half flourish.
Jones is yet to confirm anything, other than to say he wants “Australia to bring their best game to Twickenham and then see if we can handle it”. Jamie George, Ellis Genge and Harry Williams, all powerful ball-carriers, must be given at least one starting opportunity this month – and Joe Marler is available again – while the back-row balance remains a conundrum. Underhill and Chris Robshaw do plenty of donkey work but Jones must be increasingly tempted to try Courtney Lawes on the blindside flank.
If Hughes were to go down in the first minute against Australia, it will be a big ask for Exeter’s Sam Simmonds to do the back-row carrying single-handed. On Saturday Hughes carried for 79 metres, more than all the other seven members of the pack and the forward replacements combined.
At least Simmonds has his precious first cap, which he celebrated by singing Build Me Up Buttercup in the dressing room rather than on the team bus as tradition now dictates. England also now sing a team song written by May but, outside the dressing room, Saturday’s entertainment was mostly to be found at the bottom of a glass. The priciest seats for the Australia game now cost £127 and, if England are not flying, the mood can swiftly turn grumpy. There was not even an appetite for a quick burst of “Swing Low”, probably on the basis that, if the hosts dipped any lower, they would be subterranean.
Then again, as Jones rightly observed, that is the game of rugby sometimes. With Hughes’ one-handed catch for his first try when the Pumas were down to 14 men, Lozowski’s sharp break, the spectacular restart work of Argentina’s winger Ramiro Moyano and one lovely flick from the great Juan Martín Hernández on his final Twickenham Test appearance, the afternoon was not entirely bereft of charm.
It is also possible to argue England were fortunate in places, with Joaquín Tuculet unlucky to be sent to the sin-bin for his genuine attempt to compete with Brown in the air, and Slade’s scoring pass to Rokoduguni sparking another tedious GCSE physics debate about momentum and stuff being thrown from moving trains. If Michael Cheika’s Australia are to be halted in their tracks this weekend, their hosts will have to improve significantly.
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