Round One: Eddie Gets Under Cheik's Skin

Gordon Bray on the first Wallabies v England battle

Both national coaches are at pains to claim this enthralling ‘Rugby Ashes’ showdown is not about them. Codswallop! Their respective fingerprints are evident at every intriguing twist and turn.

With the greatest respect, their insistence is a bit like suggesting wily manager Claudio Ranieri was only a token figure in Leicester City’s astonishing Premier League triumph. 

Or Japan’s supreme World Cup commander Eddie Jones had only an ancillary role in their monumental win over South Africa last September.

England’s Master-Stroke

So who won the first battle in this three-pronged war? Easy! Self confessed ‘convict’ Jones seized the early initiative, unshackled his players and then cleverly directed strategy on and off the field until the final shot was fired.

Eddie’s very public Bodyline mantra was a master-stroke and quite literally hit the right nerves. Historically England wanted to intimidate Australia’s premier batsman Sir Donald Bradman with short-pitched deliveries aimed at his body.

Last Saturday night their modern day Harold Larwood was a human canon ball named James Haskell who quite legally targeted our premier player David Pocock. End result, the Aussie no.8 is out of the series.

War Of Words

Michael Cheika refused to engage Eddie in a war of words stating that his players would do the talking on the field. The status quo prevails for round two on Saturday night in Melbourne.

Meanwhile the new England coach continues his verbal picnic. Last week he told the media who Australia would pick for game 1. This week he very graciously informed the Wallabies where they needed to improve.

Jones has also taken great delight in trumpeting how the Aussies will react and how they will change things for this next game. How does he know? He’s seen it all before…… Cue Michael Cheika for a few surprises.

Call them mind games if you like but we are dealing here with an England coach at the summit of his craft. One who has learnt from past setbacks at the highest level and now clearly recognizes the forest beyond the trees.

The former school principal is a forensic scientist in his approach to winning. Small increments create bigger momentum, whether it be unsettling Aussie scrum half Nick Phipps or staying one step ahead in the dark arts of scrummaging.

Jones has a measured knack of striking at pressure points that influence the outcome.  Whether it be well placed box kicks or lightning line speed in defence, his players forced the errors he envisaged and goal kicker Owen Farrell did the rest.

Cheika’s Challenge

Michael Cheika’s challenge is one of familiarity.  He is dealing with a coach who seems to have a playbook of every Wallaby tactic and move. But that meticulous attention to detail by Jones and his coaching staff is surmountable.

Every Wallaby player will need to step up a notch at the breakdown now that the Pocock ‘glue’ is gone. It was noticeable that several training drills this week focused on greater accuracy in retention and cleanout.
Australia’s attack in the first ten minutes at Suncorp was simply breathtaking. The Wallabies are heading in an exciting direction under their World Coach of the Year but as Cheika says, “they need to do it for longer.”

The Wallabies showed how dangerous they are with quick ruck ball and should not be as vulnerable this week when countering England’s rapid fire defensive line. Therein lies a tipping point to a series leveling victory.

In the forward exchanges at Suncorp, body language reigned supreme. On that score England’s forwards as a collective were streets ahead.  Expect a more vocal and cohesive Wallaby face at AAMI Park. 

Our Men in Gold are in a sudden death situation, just as they were on several occasions at last year’s Rugby World Cup.  Only an eighty minute test match mentality will prevail. It’s time to get under Eddie’s skin. Cheik’s ‘talking on the field’ has arrived with a thud. 

Join Gordon Bray, Matt Burke, Nathan Sharpe and hosts Matt White and Scott McKinnon for the Second Test at AAMI Park, Melbourne LIVE Saturday 7.30 on TEN and tenplay.