Defeat for England would spell disaster as they finish 2014 by facing Michael Cheika’s Wallabies at Twickenham on Saturday.
Defeat for England would spell disaster as they round off 2014 by hosting Michael Cheika’s Wallabies at Twickenham on Saturday.
New Zealand and South Africa have already been to England’s ‘fortress’ and taken the wheels off the chariot, with an unconvincing win over Samoa hardly filling fans of next year’s Rugby World Cup hosts with confidence.
Winning on Saturday would go some way to rectifying that but England remain a work in progress, a side that often fail to display enough authority or execution in attack. Without those qualities, they will struggle to beat the world’s best.
Botched chances by Dave Attwood and Marland Yarde at the end of the Samoa game showed just how far England have to go. Compared to the All Blacks, Springboks, Wallabies and also Ireland, the road to the top is getting longer and longer.
That’s not to say England are a trainwreck; they are sound defensively and possess a very competitive set-piece that will be expected to dominate the Wallabies in both the scrum and lineout.
Considering the number of key injuries to players in the tight five – Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling – England remain impressively strong in that area.
There have also been positive signs from their two wingers, Jonny May and Anthony Watson, while George Ford was solid enough on his first start against Samoa to give Stuart Lancaster some encouragement.
But England have been plagued in the same old areas – getting enough out of their back row and midfield where individual players seem too one-dimensional.
Brad Barritt is a prime example of England’s persistent faith in their players, with the Saracen showing he can be an attacking force at club level and talking it up when faced with fire from his critics, yet he has never appeared to be a lethal force going forward in internationals.
Comparing Barritt’s capabilities in attack to the likes of Conrad Smith, Jonathan Davies or Tevita Kuridrani, crucially out for Australia this weekend, the gulf is enormous.
Barritt remains an outstanding defender and his organisational skills are admired, but the other Test 13s in the world are able to excel defensively and do so much more.
England rely on Manu Tuilagi in the 13 channel for dynamism and without him Barritt is merely keeping the shirt warm, with Jonathan Joseph not considered as England avoid taking risks. Had Luther Burrell been fit enough to start then his inclusion had to happen.
Bringing back in Billy Twelvetrees should help England’s creativity issues to some extent and will be marked improvement on last week’s pairing of Barritt with Owen Farrell, even if the Gloucester back can go walkabout.
As for the back row, England have needed more thrust and game-breaking moments from the flankers and number eight throughout November, not just excellence in certain areas.
Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan and Billy Vunipola have all been prone to singular bursts rather than consistently racking up metres with their carries, while none of them can exactly be regarded as outstanding pilferers at the breakdown.
Someone has to match Michael Hooper’s efficiency and more than anything, England need a try-scoring threat from all three of those players at the back of the scrum.
Hooper has two more Test tries than the whole of England’s back row put together.
The young openside continues to lead a rocky Australian ship which is already facing its first major hurdle under Cheika with the prospect of three straight defeats.
Judging the Wallabies now though would be too hasty, considering Cheika came to the helm a week before Australia flew out on tour and also because three-point losses to France and Ireland away from home aren’t exactly disasters.
What has been obvious from Australia, along with some brilliant moments of attacking play, is a dip in performance in the second half.
Matt Toomua addressed that earlier this week but didn’t have an answer, the truth being it comes down to composure. Australia are a young side but have enough experience to close out tight games, now they just need to execute and get it done.
Welcoming back the trio of Stephen Moore, David Pocock and Wycliff Palu next year will go some way to helping them in terms of experience and grinding out results.
In patches in Dublin they were outstanding, especially in the way they rebounded from 17-0 down and through the manner of their tries; bold attacking moves that were reminiscent of the Waratahs at their best in Super Rugby.
Losing Kuridrani is a hammer blow given his form this year, especially since June when he’s kicked on.
Where Australia will win or lose this match though remains upfront. They are competitive but England will feel confident about wearing them down through their rolling maul, meaning an enormous physical counter-effort is required in their final Test of the year.
Moving Adam Ashley-Cooper back into midfield is hardly a negative, because his handling and ability to beat the first defender down that 13 channel are so good at freeing up space for the outside backs.
England will be wary of him as they are of so many others, on a day when where the pressure is on the hosts to deliver something to give their supporters optimism going into next year.
That pressure might play right into Australia’s hands. 2014 has been turbulent for the Wallabies, with a bright start overpowered by off-field drama and the fallout from Ewen McKenzie’s departure. Now’s the time to draw a line under it.
Ones to Watch
For England: Having survived Samoa, George Ford gets a run against the side he might face as England’s number one fly-half in next year’s Rugby World Cup. Where Ford excels is through his flat passing, eye for a gap and dedicated defence, despite being just 1.75m. The former IRB Young Player of the Year won’t be daunted by the Wallabies and if he can combine with Twelvetrees to free up England’s back three, then the 10-12 debate for England might finally be over.
For Australia: A landmark moment for Rob Simmons, who brings up 50 Test caps at the grand old age of 25 for the Wallabies this weekend. Prone to a yellow card, at 200cm Simmons is a serious athlete who commands the Australian lineout and is a nuisance in the loose. With 50 caps comes the need for greater maturity and the young lock has to provide that at Twickenham.
Head-to-head: The two number 12s. If Billy Twelvetrees can cut out those small errors then he will be England’s inside centre at the World Cup, no doubt. Twelvetrees is a gifted player with the full skill set, who will also be eager to make amends for his missed tackle on Matt Toomua from last year’s clash.
Watching Toomua over the last few weeks has been a joy, because the Brumbies playmaker is so deceptive with the ball in hand. He can power through the middle or produce such