With their embarrassment at the hands of the Barbarians a couple of weeks behind them, England looked to kick off their Summer Test series against Australia with a win in Perth. The Wallabies suffered a late injury to starting fly half Quade Cooper, which saw Noah Lolesio elevated to the starting team during the warm-up, and it was the young fly half whose holding on penalty allowed Owen Farrell to kick England into a 0-3 lead after 6 minutes. As the half went on, both teams failed to really get any rhythm through a number of handling errors and penalties—bar one chance for England that was stopped by a wonderful cover tackle on Joe Marchant—but Farrell doubled England’s lead after 20 minutes with another penalty when David Porecki failed to support his own weight a the ruck. There was soon even more disruption for the Wallabies as Tom Banks suffered a serious injury to his arm following an awkward landing when competing for a high ball, which led to Jordan Petaia coming on at wing and Andrew Kellaway moving to 15, however the pack took it on themselves and won a penalty from the scrum restart, which Lolesio kicked over. Farrell just failed to restore the 6-point lead after the injured Allan Ala’alatoa failed to roll away at the breakdown, with James Slipper coming on to replace the Brumbies tighthead. Things soon got even worse for the Wallabies as they finally got some possession in the English 22; Jonny Hill was sent to the bin for deliberately pulling on Darcy Swain’s hair—not the first time he had gone too far in his battle with Swain during the match, but the first time he was penalised—but replays showed that Swain then reacted and attempted a headbutt, which resulted in him receiving a red card. Despite everything though, the Wallabies ended the half positively and Noah Lolesio managed to level the scores at 6-6 with the final kick of the half after a strong carry from Rob Leota.
As Hill’s sin bin period came to an end in the opening moments of the second half, Lolesio put the Wallabies ahead with a third penalty. Looking to utilise their man advantage, England put their next penalty to the corner and mauled Ellis Genge over for the opening try of the game, though Farrell’s kick from the right-hand 5m channel just pulled across the face of the goal. England found themselves with another chance in the same corner with the hour approaching, but the Australian maul defence—bolstered by the arrival of Matt Philip for Rob Leota—held firm and after a couple of phases, Matthew Hooper timed his arrival at the breakdown to win a huge penalty that allowed the Wallabies to clear their lines. Farrell kicked a penalty on the hour to extend the lead to 5, but Jack Nowell’s failure to claim the restart put them under immediate pressure, which resulted in Petaia crashing over on the wing to level the scores and Lolesio kicking the conversion to put the home team ahead, while things got even worse for England just minutes later as Billy Vunipola was binned for a high tackle on Michael Hooper, with the Wallabies taking advantage of the parity in numbers as Folau Fainga’a peeled off the back of a 5m maul to get over the line, Lolesio adding the extras. As the clock ticked into the final five minutes, an unlikely Wallabies win was looking more certain, and when Pete Samu stepped around Lewis Ludlam and carried through the tackle of Will Stuart, he managed to reach the line and secure the victory, and though Henry Arundell scored with his first touch of the ball and Jack van Poortvliet scored at the death with Lolesio in the bin, it just put an undeserved gloss on the match for them as they lost 30-28.
Simple but effective
Rugby is a simple game: you pass backwards, run forwards and try to outscore your opponents. Australia must have felt the gods were against them with Quade Cooper’s injury in warm-up being exacerbated by injuries to Banks and Ala’alatoa (made worse by Taniela Tupou already being out injured) and Swain’s red card.
And yet they often looked the more dangerous team, despite Lolesio often looking out of his depth for much of the match. And this was because they kept things simple.
In players like Leota, Bell, Samu and Valentini they had willing carriers in the forwards, who would work alongside inside centre Samu Kerevi and wing Marika Koroibete—who is frequently used coming in off his wing—to get the Wallabies on the front foot with repeated carries over the gain line. With consistent quick ball that is breaching the gain line, the game becomes easy for an attacking team, as the defense is constantly in retreat and has no chance to get settled and organised, so it is then just a matter of being patient and exploiting the mismatch (the classic prop stuck in the centre channel) or the overlap, which Australia’s backs have the quality to finish.
Time for change
I’ve given England a bit of slack with their failed attempts to play “formationless” attacking rugby as they have been playing with just 1 playmaker in their back line. However, today they played both Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell and still struggled to make any impact on the game, despite playing against 14 men for over half the game, which would have automatically created more space for them to exploit.
Something is drastically wrong with this England attack, and it needs changing immediately. Lawes cannot be taking up the space of a potential ball carrier at 6 and should be moved back into the second row, and England need to start looking at players and a shape that will allow them to get 3 to 4 consecutive phases of quick ball over the gain line in midfield, as this will then create the space for the wings to exploit. Just look at Australia’s success today!
In Smith and Farrell, England have 2 world class talents, but they look overwhelmed trying to run this attack and need something more conventional to get this back line going. Yes it may be missing Manu Tuilagi, but that is the case more often than not with England in this cycle, so it can no longer be used as an excuse. And if the head coach can’t—or won’t—fix this, then it’s time to move on.