By Richard de Winter
It wasn’t supposed to end like that. On Saturday morning most experts suggested that a combination of superior forward play, home advantage and sheer desperation would see England defeat Australia. The Guardian asked 6 of its columnists, including Eddie Butler and Graham Henry, for their prediction. Every single one, rather embarrassingly, picked England to win, a ratio that looked questionable at the time, and bizarre with hindsight.
There will be consequences, I am sure. It is inconceivable that Stuart Lancaster will keep his job as head coach. He has done his bit for English rugby – he has reconnected the team with the public, he has encouraged the development of a fine crop of young players who, whisper it, should be at their peak in 2019, and he has overseen a more expressive style of rugby than before – but his time is clearly up. He has failed to instil the right mentality into his players, that of winning when it really matters. England are now perennial runners-up in the Six Nations, and contrived to lose to a clearly inferior Wales XV last weekend – a change is needed.
Lancaster’s team selection has also been muddled. Last autumn, and during this year’s Six Nations, George Ford took over from Owen Farrell as first-choice fly-half, and as a result England looked far more dangerous in attack. Ford is a beautiful distributor of the ball, his timing of the pass so perfect it elicits a collective purr of satisfaction. He is smaller than Farrell, and less of a destructive defender, but he is still solid enough, definitely not an O’Gara-esque swinging gate. So Lancaster’s decision in this tournament to revert to Farrell smacks of unnecessary conservatism. It’s not that Farrell has played badly, but England have looked much more threatening with Ford at 10.
England were a little unlucky on Saturday that Jonny May was injured and unable to continue after half-time, as it meant the back-line needed to be re-jigged, forcing Jonathan Joseph onto the wing. Joseph was England’s most potent attacker in the first half, always looking like he was on the cusp of making a line break from outside centre, so when he was forced to play on the wing it was a real blow. However, the over-conservative selection of the backs for England’s replacements meant that such an injury would have such an effect. Richard Wigglesworth, George Ford and Sam Burgess can all only really play in one position, so why not have Alex Goode or Jack Nowell on the bench to offer more versatility? I know it’s easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but I thought this in the previous two matches. It’s almost as if Lancaster, having made the controversial decision to pick Burgess in the first place, felt duty bound to use him in every match.
Having said all that, England didn’t play particularly poorly, especially in the first hour. They were just blown away by a spectacularly strong Australia side that did everything perfectly. They tackled with great intensity, denying England, who looked very dangerous from first phase possession, any quick ball; they carried the ball with greater desire and urgency; and they scored with practically all their opportunities. The quickness of though amongst all their players, but particularly Bernard Foley, Matt Giteau and Kurtley Beale, was wonderful to watch, and ensured that any line breaks were converted into points.
Australia also won the battle of the packs, both at the breakdown (predictably) and at the scrum (rather less predictably). David Pocock was a turnover machine, seeming to be permanently just next to the tackled player at all times. His presence meant that England often had to commit an extra two or three players to the ruck just in order to force him off the ball, thus denying them any continuity in attack.
As for the scrum, no-one has any idea what went on there. Everyone seems to have a different opinion. For example one expert will say that Joe Marler was constantly boring in from loose-head and therefore deserved to penalised as much as he was, while another expert will talk about how Australia’s back five were deliberately pushing across towards their own loose-head, thus unbalancing the scrum, giving Marler no option but to fold inwards. Much has been made of Mario Ledesma’s influence on the Australian scrum. It seems to me that he hasn’t improved their scrummaging technique; rather he has improved their technique in gaining scrum penalties, a different skill altogether.
In terms of personnel, I am not sure too much needs to change in the England team. Dylan Hartley will return, although Tom Youngs has looked very lively, and Dan Cole doesn’t look the same player, particularly at the breakdown, since his neck injury. Without Courtney Lawes, the second row seems a bit lightweight, and I suspect, much as I am a huge fan of his, Geoff Parling may not play for England again. His expertise at the lineout is invaluable, but Dave Attwood and Maro Itoje contribute more in the scrum and in the loose. The back-three are potentially world-class, and Ben Youngs finally seems to have learnt how to pass quickly.
It is in the back-row where changes need to be made, but there is no obvious solution. Modern rugby is such that a specialist number 7 is imperative; someone who can maintain a low body position without getting knocked over easily; someone such as Steffon Armitage for example.
The non-selection of Armitage was much debated before the tournament. Despite not playing in England, should the Toulon openside, one of Europe’s best players for the last two years, be included? There are valid rugby-related reasons for not picking him – Toulon’s game is such that he is not expected to contribute other than to win the ball at the breakdown, and there are doubts about his fitness – but surely he would have offered something different. Given Australia changed their eligibility rules to allow Matt Giteau to play, why couldn’t England have done something similarly sneaky?
So the tournament will continue without the hosts, but with plenty of stellar rugby to come. Will Australia continue to sparkle? Are New Zealand just biding their time? Can Argentina live up to the promise of their opening games? Will any of the Home Nations make the semi-finals (almost certainly not)? Whatever happens, the next few weeks are going to be exciting.