Ahead of the upcoming three-Test series between Australia and England, we pick out five storylines to follow over the next month.
The Red Rose have dominated this rivalry over the past few years, winning eight in a row, including a 3-0 whitewash the last time they toured down under.
In fact, they have not lost to the Wallabies with Eddie Jones in charge, but this is arguably Australia’s best chance to end that barren run.
Planet Rugby duly takes a look at five talking points ahead of the blockbuster series.
Pressure continues to increase on Eddie Jones
The Australian knows all about receiving criticism while England boss. In 2018, the Red Rose endured a wretched campaign where they finished in fifth position in the Six Nations and left some people questioning whether he was the right man to lead them into the World Cup. A year later, all that was forgotten as England reached the showpiece event, playing their best rugby since the glory years between 2001 and 2003.
They were a genuine all-court team, who had a powerful pack and an electric backline, leading to them utterly dismantling New Zealand in the semi-finals. Since then, however, they have gradually declined. Even in 2020, when they won the Six Nations, it was not exactly convincing, before they regressed further in 2021 and 2022.
At the moment, unlike in 2019, it doesn’t look like things are changing anytime soon. The same issues of a stagnant attack, a mediocre set-piece and a lack of punch at the breakdown continues, while their defence, since the departure of John Mitchell, has shown real signs of creaking. Although you do, to a degree, have to ignore the Barbarians game, supporters will quite rightly be worried about how easily it was breached.
It means that Jones ultimately goes into this series under a lot of pressure. There is no doubt that he will keep his job until the World Cup but there needs to be progress over the next month otherwise the knives will be out.
Super Rugby form provides hope for Dave Rennie’s Australia
In previous seasons, we’ve never quite been convinced that an Aussie resurgence has been in the offing, but in 2022 our heads could well turn. Even last year, when they secured four successive victories in the Rugby Championship, which included two wins over world champions South Africa, there were still significant weaknesses. As a result, they lacked consistency overall and quite frankly didn’t look anywhere near a World Cup-contending side.
However, following the improvement of their Super Rugby teams, who have finally started to get some positive results against their New Zealand rivals, the continual development of their youngsters and the introduction of a few experienced heads that ply their trade overseas, there is plenty of hope.
The backline in particular looks a threat for any team. Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete are the two obvious stars in the wider channels, while at fly-half they have three top quality options in Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Noah Lolesio. There is also enough depth in pretty much every position behind the scrum to cover for injuries.
It is a slightly different story in the pack though. The prop stocks are much better than they used to be but they are slightly too reliant on James Slipper and Taniela Tupou, with Scott Sio and Allan Alaalatoa not quite the players they were set-piece-wise. In the back-row, they are stacked but there are concerns at lock following the injury to Izack Rodda and the absence of the France-based Rory Arnold and Will Skelton.
Even so, Nick Frost is a young player with a bright future, Matt Philip is consistently good and Darcy Swain is an excellent lineout and maul operator. It therefore all points to a much-improved Australian side and one which genuinely has a shot at winning this series 3-0.
— Stan Sport Rugby (@StanSportRugby) June 19, 2022
The battle of the set-piece
As intimated above, the Wallabies may have a few set-piece concerns, especially in the lineout, but we’re not entirely sure England have the form to take advantage at the moment. There is no doubting the individual quality of that Red Rose pack but as a unit they have not performed especially well for the past two years.
There is also a significant concern at tighthead, with Kyle Sinckler out and Will Stuart not exactly shining as his deputy. The Bath tighthead very much deserved his call-up in 2020 and often performed well when coming off the bench, but his form has certainly dipped over the past year. No doubt the issues at his club have not helped but it has left the Red Rose with a problem on that side of the scrum.
Jones will be delighted that Luke Cowan-Dickie has returned from injury, while in the second-row Jonny Hill should partner the always-impressive Maro Itoje. With Courtney Lawes also there, whether at flanker or on the bench as a utility forward, England should have a solid lineout presence. They certainly have more experience and proven quality than the Wallabies in the air but that hasn’t shown on the pitch over recent times.
Equally, the scrum will be an intriguing duel where hopefully Ellis Genge and Tupou will be fit enough to go head-to-head over the three Tests. Both missed the November clash, depriving us of one of the more exciting battles last year, and there is also a doubt over the Australian’s fitness this time around. Tupou has had a few injury issues this season and is currently carrying a calf problem which has put his participation in doubt.
Should the tighthead be fit then the Wallabies could well enjoy the upper hand over the tourists at the scrum, while his carrying game always proves valuable in the loose. He is one of the most exciting forwards in the game and it would be a huge shame if he misses out.
The Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell partnership
You got the feeling that leading up to the Autumn Nations Series, a lot of what coach Jones wanted to do was based around these two lining up alongside each other. Smith was the form fly-half in 2020/21, leading Harlequins to a stunning Premiership title triumph, while Farrell quite simply always plays when fit. However, with the latter’s injury ruling him out of the South Africa Test and the 2022 Six Nations, this will be the first chance Jones gets to see these two play consistently in tandem.
On paper, it’s a very exciting duo. Smith is the thrilling, attacking fly-half who provides both a running and passing threat, with Farrell a leader, decision-maker and accurate kicker, both out of hand and off the tee. That is not to say the players don’t have those other weapons in their armoury but it is fair to say that their main strengths complement each other well.
Considering England’s issues over the past two years, Jones will hope that this combination works and that they are as sound defensively as they are effective in attack, especially with Kerevi set to run at them. The 28-year-old was outstanding for the Wallabies last year and will certainly look to test the resolve of Smith, as well as the tackle technique of Farrell.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 13, 2021
Wallabies’ fly-half selection
Rennie has the very difficult job of selecting between three outstanding playmakers for the upcoming internationals. Cooper is probably the man in possession, considering his form in the Rugby Championship last year, but O’Connor and Lolesio are also making strong cases after excellent Super Rugby Pacific campaigns.
Lolesio is certainly the fly-half for the future but, at the moment, he’s still slightly too raw for a huge series like this. It duly means that it will likely be between Cooper and O’Connor for the position. The former was one of the great entertainers earlier in his career, but he has certainly matured over the years and has brought a calmness to his game. Gone are the needless off-loads and sheer panic under pressure, with Cooper dictating play well and often making the right decisions.
O’Connor is another player to have evolved on and off the field. The controversy which plagued his career is no more and the pivot has grown into an outstanding professional. He has become an excellent fly-half and is perhaps slightly better at straightening the line and opening space in the wider channels. Despite that, we would still continue with Cooper in the fly-half role but, whoever the head coach selects, they are unlikely to let him down.