Is it possible to be on the wrong end of a series whitewash against the old enemy and still enjoy it?
My pained response - absolutely! Here are the reasons why.
England’s ‘Bodyline rugby’ was a big hit Down Under. Their coach Eddie Jones has been a marketer’s dream for Australian Rugby. The final test provided breathless thrill-a-minute action. But above all, the Wallabies have been reminded there is nothing more impermanent than victory.
That last element is a reference to England’s humiliating exit from last year’s Rugby World Cup courtesy of Michael Cheika’s Wallabies. The swiftness of the Red Rose turnaround though is an abject lesson for Australia ahead of the Rugby Championship.
Fresh Wallabies Talent
The series introduced some exciting fresh talent on the home front. Dane Haylett-Petty was a revelation and has provided the future opportunity for Israel Folau to move to three quarter line duty and more involvements.
Giant lock Rory Arnold stepped up impressively in his two outings and although on a steep learning curve, did not take a backward step when the going was toughest. Likewise fellow lock Adam Coleman’s opening stint in test rugby underlined his size and athletic credentials. Both men need to finesse their lineout skills.
Qld Reds centre Samu Kerevi grabbed his chance with both hands. He backed himself and although a work-in-progress must be pressing Tevita Kuridrani. We did not see lively utility Reece Hodge but clearly he has impressed Cheika who retained him in the train-on squad.
Sean McMahon’s performance at no.8 in Sydney was phenomenal. His aggression and sheer determination lifted teammates and underlined his credentials as a regular starter.
Although the predictable knockers say otherwise, the Wallabies responded boldly after each loss but critically, were tactically outpointed on each occasion. Although they stayed true to their ball-in-hand approach with some thrilling rugby, results don’t lie. We lost 3-0.
The first scrum of each half in Sydney highlighted England’s subtle appraisal process. In the first half they knew Australia would hit and chase that initial contest. As a consequence they made no attempt to take the weight on engagement. Result – Australia penalized on its own scrum feed.
Early in the second half, no.8 Billy Vunipola’s try was a game breaker. Lock replacement Courtney Lawes came on after half-time with Maro Itoje packing at blindside flanker opposite Michael Hooper. The much bigger Scott Fardy was on the openside which exposed a hefty mismatch.
As the Australian scrum dug in to resist the expected eight-man shunt, England secured quick first channel ball and 126 kg Vunipola was around Hooper before he’d realized what had happened. It was a pre-planned technical ploy exercised with embarrassing simplicity and devastating impact.
The ‘Bodyline’ Big Hit
As the dust settles, the reality of this ‘Bodyline’ series is that England was a more stable and cohesive outfit. The pack was the same one that clinched the Grand Slam. In contrast the Aussies were underdone and more prone to putting out spot fires rather than creating the desired inferno.
To the Wallabies’ credit that imbalance moved towards equilibrium as combinations and familiarity progressed. And let’s not forget they did put themselves in a winning position late in each game, only to falter.
The law of winning needs to be revisited by the Wallabies. Points can only be scored at your opponent’s end of the field so the aim is to get there as expediently as possible.
England appreciate that fact and have played to that end in all nine wins under Eddie Jones. Australia has not cultivated general field kickers like George Ford, Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Players who can peel off 40-50 metres of territory with absolute precision.
When you divide the field into four quarters, the Wallabies spent most of their field time in Sydney between halfway and the their 22metre line – 36%.
What The Wallabies Need Next
A shrewder kicking game is demanded in this latest era of high-speed, often brutal rugby. Players are fitter, bigger and stronger. Defensive line speed is king. A ball-in-hand exit strategy is brave but needs diluting. More effective kick and chase addresses the urgency to get to the other end of the field.
Australia will have some significant artillery returning for the double hit against the All Blacks starting at ANZ on August 20 and backing up the following week in Wellington. It is now imperative for coach Cheika that his new crop of test players keeps maturing and performing at Super level.
Last weekend’s 84 point thriller in Sydney rekindled memories of the year 2000 epic in front of 109,000 when Jonah Lomu clinched a dramatic 39-35 win for the All Blacks. Worth noting the Wallabies then bounced back in Wellington thanks to John Eales’ last second penalty goal.
Eddie Jones and his England team have done Australian Rugby a huge favour. They played smart, winning rugby, tailored to conditions and their opponents. They addressed Wallaby vulnerability with meticulously executed game plans aided by a sensational goal kicker.
Over to you Mr Cheika. But where do we start with the All Blacks’ weaknesses?
Gordon Bray will be joined by experts Matt Burke and Nathan Sharpe along with hosts Matt White and Scott Mackinnon for live telecasts of The Rugby Championship on TEN and tenplay