LONDON, ENGLAND – England ended their autumn campaign with their strongest match, but there are undeniable troubles with the side that heads into the Six Nations. The home team put away Australia 26-17 in a forward dominated display, reverting to the “power-first” formula that has characterized England for so long.
George Ford was composed in his second start at fly-half, and appears to have claimed the number 10 shirt from Owen Farrell. Things started brightly for Australia when they struck first with a Bernard Foley penalty, but Ford hit back with two strikes of his own before Ben Morgan rumbled over for his first try of the match. Ford nailed the conversion, and suddenly, England were ahead 13-3. However, things did not go all England’s way in the first half. Australia were continuously dangerous in the backs, and it took an astonishing tackle from Courtney Lawes on Adam Ashley-Cooper to prevent a try. Ashley-Cooper knocked on, England won a penalty at the ensuing scrum, and they were off to the races in the other direction.
The scrum, so long an area of concern for Australia, continued to wobble. Michael Cheika suggested after the match that the Wallabies were simply “too honest” in their front row, but this had more than a hint of sour grapes. On more than one occasion, the Wallabies were simply marched backward and the referee didn’t blow when he could have, in an attempt to allow the match to flow. More than a year into the implementation of “crouch, bind, set” it seems fair to say that World Rugby has finally hit on the magic formula for allowing scrums to remain an integral part of a match, without totally ruining its flow.
Australia picked things up immediately after the half, scoring after four minutes through Foley. Isreal Folau got the move started with a simple pass, but the Wallabies backs unlocked the England defense and raced through for the score. Australia’s back line was a constant menace, and it seemed that they were a threat to score every time they moved forward. In direct contrast, England kept the ball in the forwards more often than any time in Lancaster’s reign. England had only 34 percent of possession and a mere 2 clean breaks, compared to 8 for Australia, they dominated the “only statistic that matters.” One major area for concern for the England defense was missed tackles. A week after being superb against Samoa, England combined to miss 25 tackles. Dave Attwood and David Wilson missed three apiece, figures that may lead to the pair being dropped in favor of the returning British and Irish Lions.
Things were quiet until the 56th minute, when Morgan crossed after a 5 meter scrum. England’s pack simply marched over the line, and Morgan fell on the ball to secure another try that Ford converted. Even after Owen Farrell entered, Ford continued with his kicking duties. Will Skelton briefly made things interesting once more in the 59th minute with a try of his own to bring the Wallabies within 3. However, Ford slotted twice more, included a penalty in the 76th minute that put the match beyond doubt.
When asked in his post-match press conference if there was anything to add to the side, Stuart Lancaster had a simple reply, “Manu.” The Leicester center is integral to England’s World Cup plans, though Sam Burgess is now an intriguing option. The rugby league convert has been fast tracked into the Saxons, and Israel Folau offers a recent example of how quickly an elite league star can convert. Ironically, it may be that after three years and countless center combinations, Barritt and Tuilangi recombine in the centers. Lancaster’s game plan suggests that he may move back to a more conservative style of play against the southern hemisphere, having seen his backs fail to develop the necessary skills to compete by throwing the ball wide. England unquestionably had scrum dominance over New Zealand and Australia, and their forwards were generally solid in the loose, while their Lions reinforcements are even better in both areas. With eight matches to go before they kick off against Fiji, England will be satisfied, but not thrilled, with their progress.