Can the ‘All Greys’ Light Up Twickenham Again?

Scrums? What scrums? Who said anything about scrums???

So, how wrong were we to assume that in order to give themselves the best chance of victory last Saturday, England would simply abandon their recent expansive explorations, revert to type, smash the misfiring Wallaby pack at every opportunity and take the points through possession and/or penalties?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but let’s be honest, most of us expected them to target the scrum and grind out a win a la 2003/05/07. Credit then to Martin Johnson and co. for doing something that English teams have so rarely done in the past – the unexpected. By chancing their arm and running the ball back at will, they succeeded in defeating Australia at their own game, and whether Robbie Deans says he wasn’t surprised by it or not, the fact remains that on this occasion, there was very little his side could do about it.

The catalyst, as in Sydney back in June, was 20-year-old half-back sensation Ben Youngs. The Leicester man took the game by the scruff of the neck and dictated the pace and point of attack to such an extent, that his opposite number Will Genia was left looking a pale shadow of the player who unleashed his own dominance on the Twickenham turf 12 months ago.

The most impressive feature of Youngs’ game was the consistency of his sense of purpose. From signalling England’s intent with a raid on enemy territory in the opening minute, to his removal from the fray in the 54th, he never took a backward step, never took the safe option and kept his side firmly on the front foot throughout. For a guy playing in only his fifth test, it was a tantalising glimpse of the future if he can maintains his upward curve and his fitness over the next ten years.

There were heroes all over the park for the Red Rose, decked out in their new ‘anthracite’ coloured change strip. It may as well have been kryptonite for the ameliorating effect it had on their opponents, as England broke the line time and again, pilfered ball at the breakdown and – Kurtley Beale excepted – nullified the considerable attacking threat the Wallabies bring to the table.

The back row of Croft, Easter and Moody were everywhere, refusing to let the Wallabies settle, snaffling turnover ball and driving forward with vim and vigour. Captain Moody led by example when he charged at Quade Cooper’s clearing kick in the opening seconds, causing enough consternation in the gun fly-half that his kick fell short of it’s target and gave England a platform from which to attack with ball in hand for seven phases before conceding a turnover. Twickenham went wild with joy and pleasant surprise in equal measure.

It was the start of a bad day at the office for Cooper, consistently targeted as a ‘turnstile’ defender as the England backline cut loose and repeatedly got over the advantage line. Mark Cueto had arguably his best game in test rugby; Ben Foden was a constant probing threat who looked to run it back at his opponents without fail rather than succumb to the historical ‘lay down misère’ of putting boot to ball; and Chris Ashton is fast becoming the new Ben Cohen, adding two more tries to his expanding collection. The second was one to keep on the mantelpiece for many years to come.

While Cooper, Genia and Matt Giteau were all showing signs of an inventive malaise, the one man show of Kurtley Beale did its best to keep the Wallabies in the match – his chip and chase first try emblematic of the extravagant talents the world’s best full-back on current form has at his disposal. Beale – along with the new king of pilfering, David Pocock, and a tackle hungry Stephen Moore – were the only players to perform anywhere near their true potential, as many of the Australians that have lit up the test scene in recent months fell woefully short of the standards that had seen them rise briefly to second in the IRB world rankings.

Just as this maverick brand of entertainers seemed to be setting a course for World Cup glory next year, their train has been somewhat derailed this week, with defeat at Munster on Tuesday following hot on the heels of the Twickenham reverse. True, if James O’Connor had kicked his first two penalties to open up a six point lead, would England’s mindset have been forced to change? Would they have reverted to a more cautious approach to get some points on the board while stifling the flow in the other direction? We’ll never know, but it would be churlish to suggest that Australia were cruelled in this game by missed kicks alone. They were simply outplayed by the better team on the day.

Possible redemption comes in the early hours of tomorrow morning (AEST time) in the shape of Italy, and the bells of change have already been rung. Giteau, Mark Chisholm, Benn Robinson, Genia (injury) and O’Connor (unavailable) all miss out, giving Berrick Barnes, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Luke Burgess and Lachie Turner respectively, their chance to shine. Nothing less than a comprehensive win against a country that has proven problematic in the past, will placate the wolves who have returned once more to bay at the Wallaby door.

For England, it’s about backing up and proving that last week was no flash in the pan. They face Samoa, a team they should deal with fairly comfortably on paper, but one that proved a major headache for a misfiring Ireland in Dublin last week, and one more than capable of reducing England’s performance to a case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ if they’re not careful. This morning’s achievement by Fiji against Wales is a stark reminder of the Pacific Island nation’s propensity to be ‘party poopers’ given the chance.

Having set the tone for the way forward, England must now hold true to it, expand on it and master it. As refreshingly brilliant as last week was, one swallow doesn’t make a summer and there’s an awful long way to go before this team can be truly thought of as serious World Cup contenders. Compared with the class of 2003, they simply don’t have the runs on the board yet to be put on such a pedestal.

When New Zealand 2011 kicks off, Martin Johnson will have been in charge for three years, and with only one more game currently scheduled against the Tri-Nations heavyweights before then – South Africa in two weeks time – his record against them currently stands at: Played 9 – Won 2 – Lost 7. In the three years prior to the 03’ final, Johnson’s England in his previous incarnation as captain, had a record of: Played 10 – Won 10 – Lost 0 against the same countries.

Wins over Samoa and South Africa, followed by a Six Nations title next year, will be required to truly cement any notions of cup glory. But for the time being, last week’s triumph has certainly put the biggest smile on the face of English rugby since a certain drop goal on a wet night in Sydney seven years ago.

First published by Ruggamatrix on November 20th, 2010

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