Eddie Jones said plenty in the run-up to facing Australia but nothing rang truer than this: “We know [Australia] are going to come out in the first 20 minutes like there’s no tomorrow.”
This was England’s poorest start in a Test match since Jones took charge and their problems stemmed from Australia dominating possession and territory and their razor sharp attack, a challenge the Six Nations champions have not faced over the last few weeks.
Unwilling to commit numbers to the rucks for fear of being exposed out wide, England’s drift then wasn’t clinical enough to counter Australia’s quick ball at the breakdown.
The more space and time for Bernard Foley, the more damage Australia inflicted, although they absolutely had to have led by far more than three points by the break.
Yet despite saving their worst start until last England have finished with a perfect year, defeating a side who ridiculed them in last year’s Rugby World Cup four times in a row in 2016 and this time by a healthy 16-point margin.
This time they capitalised on Australian errors and rode their luck, getting the rub of the green on key decisions from Jaco Peyper and the officials.
Jonathan Joseph’s two tries stemmed from pouncing on mistakes either side of half-time. Marland Yarde’s grounding of the ball looked suspicious even after multiple replays. Not forgetting an exceedingly soft yellow card on Dane Haylett-Petty late on.
Where England deserve credit is that despite looking hugely out of sorts, they got their act together and showed plenty of character in the process.
Jones has drilled home two qualities commonly found in winning sides; the confidence to persist when things aren’t going their way, and the ability to win despite not playing their best.
Ben Youngs was not at his best before quick-thinking with the tapped penalty and another dummy let to his try, this time on Nick Phipps after two on Pieter-Steph du Toit last month.
Australia’s early width and the threat Sefa Naivalu provided had Yarde scrambling defensively – yet it was his speed hunting down Haylett-Petty that dragged England back into the game and later enabled him to win the race to Jonathan Joseph’s kick for England’s second try.
England have proved with this latest win that their own execution does not need to perfect as long as they are still able to pressure their opponents into mistakes; the lengthy passage of play when they pinned Australia deep in their own 22 late in the second half prior to Joseph’s interception being a fine example.
It is not a game plan built on the enterprise of the All Blacks, nor is it boring. Conservative, as Michael Cheika and Adriaan Strauss have described it in recent weeks? Sure. Effective? Just look at the results. Once ahead on the scoreboard, they are hard to shift.
Belief and confidence will allow good teams to soak up all that early pressure from Australia and to then turn it around to score nearly 40 points.
Pair that with how much more there is to come from a young group set to welcome back Maro Itoje, Anthony Watson, James Haskell and Jack Nowell, and that makes England interesting.
George Ford, speaking afterwards, hit the nail on the head.
”We are nowhere near our best and there is loads of improvement in us. If we can get anywhere near we think we can, we will be a dangerous team.”