Déjà Vu: Twickenham test shapes up as Perth revisited

Photo: Clay Cross / Photosport

June 2010: England and Australia head to Perth to renew age old rivalries and the build-up to the game centres around the expected dominance of England’s monster pack as they face up to an injury hit Wallaby front row loaded with novices. On the flip side, there is much talk of how England can possibly cope with an Australian backline chock full of pace, power and flair.

The predictions prove accurate as England destroy their opponents at scrum time, to the point of being awarded two penalty tries. However, this dominance proves to be their undoing as they fail to capitalise on the platform it created and every effort is put into keeping the ball in close, rumbling their way to the line and refusing to shift the ball wide and test the Wallaby flanks. Thanks to some fantastic Australian goal line defence it doesn’t work, so much so that if they hadn’t been gifted the penalty tries, you wonder if they would have crossed the white line at all.

Meanwhile the Wallabies, through the prodigious talents of Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Matt Giteau, fed their backs at every opportunity, and England simply couldn’t cope with the speed, movement and invention that was thrown at them. Final score Australia 27 England 17.

Fast forward five months and the two rivals are preparing to face off again at Twickenham, and although both sides have taken great strides since that evening to improve their relevant weaknesses, we somehow seem to be heading for a repeat performance.

The week after Perth, the Wallaby scrum was much improved in Sydney for the 2nd test but a more expansive and daring England came away with a one point victory, due mostly to the introduction of half-back Ben Youngs and the increased opportunities for the likes of Ben Foden and Chris Ashton to actually get on the ball and do some damage. It was a pointer to the future for England who were still – as most Northern Hemisphere sides – behind the eight ball when it came to adapting to the new law interpretations at the breakdown.

They continued in the same vein against New Zealand Maori a few days later, their last tour match, in a fantastic advert for running rugby where they tried valiantly to fight fire with fire and came away with much credit for doing so, even if it didn’t bring them victory.

This year’s Aviva Premiership has so far seen some terrific attacking rugby with sides like London Irish, Northampton and Bath gaining reward for their high octane brand of running rugby but – and most obviously in Northampton’s case – without losing the basic tenets of forward play that have served the English game so well down the years. The seeds of change appear to be sown in the minds of the English game and most importantly, in that of Martin Johnson.

Meanwhile, the Australian novices of Campese Ma’afu, Saia Fainga’a, James Slipper and Ben Daley, learned quickly under the stewardship of former Wallaby and Argentine test prop Patricio Noriega. Their progress in tandem with the returns of the experienced Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander and Benn Robinson throughout the course of the Tri-Nations, saw the return of a steady if unspectacular platform from which to work from.

But then they played Wales.

The signs had been there in their previous two clashes against New Zealand, particularly in Hong Kong where the All Blacks gained a significant upper hand at the engagement. Although, in fairness, neither side was helped by the pedantic refereeing of Alain Rolland in that match, the ridiculous length of time between the ‘…pause and engage’ making the Wallaby front row visibly gun shy, a theme that continued last Saturday at the Millennium Stadium.

Seven scrum penalties were awarded against them by English referee Wayne Barnes, and while the validity of each offence differs depending on which newspaper or media site you read, the general consensus is that even if one, maybe two were questionable, the total of seven doesn’t tell a lie across the board. Ironically, the renewed fragility has coincided with the return of ‘first-choice’ props Robinson and Alexander, both normally so reliable but both seemingly still shaking off the cobwebs of long-term injury. As a result, the Wallabies claimed a deserved victory over a gallant, but ultimately toothless, Welsh side thanks to the same cut and thrust from the back three that did for England in Perth.

Drew Mitchell was an ever-present danger with ball in hand, James O’Connor is growing into his position on the wing, showing speed, awareness and confidence beyond his years, while Kurtley Beale is fast becoming the player most shrewd Australian pundits imagined and hoped for when he burst onto the Super Rugby scene almost four years ago. It’s been a slow rise to maturity on the international stage with more than a few road humps along the way but boy, has it been worth the wait. His regathered ‘Garryowen’ followed by the cheekiest of grubbers that so nearly brought him a magnificent try in the 2nd half, was a joy to behold.

While the Wallabies were triumphing in Cardiff, England were putting up some stiff, and eventually cavalier, opposition to an impressive All Blacks outfit at Twickenham. Blown away through the midfield and the class of Dan Carter in the 1st half, the home side regrouped and despite having the ascendancy up front, opted to throw the ball around and have a go, put New Zealand on the backfoot, and went within a few inches of what may have been a game changing try.

The concern is that, having seen Australia’s scrum woes last weekend, they will abandon that type of abandon if you will, in favour of a tighter, more conventional game plan, as they are now – if they weren’t already – confident of complete dominance when they pack down and will play to that strength. The Wallabies should improve after a week of ‘re-adjustment’ under Noriega, but will still be sure to unleash Beale, O’Connor, Mitchell et al at every opportunity, as they know it gets results.

The RFU have set Martin Johnson a minimum target of two wins from four games in the Autumn series, he now needs two from three. On the assumption that a lowly Samoa and a weakened South Africa were seen as the best chance of victory, Australia are being viewed as a potential bonus, and having beaten them last time out in Sydney, expectations are high for a repeat performance on home soil.

For the benefit of all true rugby lovers, and in the interest of their progression towards next year’s World Cup, let’s hope they take the Sydney approach, rather than revisiting Perth.

First published on www.ruggamatrix.com on November 13, 2010

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