Following a 21-17 victory for England over Australia in their July international series decider, here’s our five takeaways from the match in Sydney.
The top line
After the Lord Mayor’s show of New Zealand versus Ireland, so came the dustbin men of Australia v England, a scrappy affair that saw England’s resilience and marginal breakdown superiority take them to a 2-1 series victory as they finally ran out 21-17 victors at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Low skill sets and handling errors littered the game as collision and grit trumped handling ability and running threat, but the second-half bench impact of England’s finishers came good as Australia struggled for invention.
When games are as close as this, they often turn on one piece of brilliance from an individual; cue Marcus Smith and his 60 metre run for the decisive try as he ignited the afterburners to melt away from the failing tackles of the Wallaby scramble defence.
It’s the end of an incredibly long season for England and by the end, they were threadbare in terms of energy and personnel, but rich in commitment and spirit as Australia launched their power runners in wave upon wave of direct attack when perhaps attacking the corners, as they did in the first half, would have yielded more success.
For England, it’s a feint tick in their build-up for the Rugby World Cup; for Australia, it’s part of their learning journey under Dave Rennie and they’ll come back better for the lessons they absorbed in this match.
As mentioned, both teams were almost threadbare in terms of personnel at the start of the game. Australia’s lock stocks are at the bottom of the barrel and their inexperience showed towards the end.
For England, the impact of Jack van Poortvliet, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Heyes, Jack Willis and especially Nick Isiekwe was evident. Cowan-Dickie’s skill at the breakdown saw him net two vital turnovers, whilst Isiekwe’s gainline tackles took England’s physicality up a new level completely to prevent the Australian power runners making the best of their vastly superior possession.
With 20 minutes to go, you felt that England would crumble – but it was a mark of their passion and self-belief that they managed to keep cool heads under pressure, competing legally at the breakdown when it would have been easy to capitulate. For those reasons alone, this was an important step forward for Eddie Jones’ men, even if it was more of a shuffle than a stride.
In the early exchanges of the match, Australia, powered by Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi, caused England huge problems with wave runners around the corner into the 13 and 14 channel. England were slow to drift, confused in controlling the touchline advantage and Nic White needed no invitation to get his runners attacking the channels.
Coupled with this was White’s ability to attack the short side, memorably creating a try of high quality for Wallaby wing Tom Wright which saw the Aussies rock their deadly rivals with an early score.
But grit and fight have been the qualities that have defined England on this tour and they worked out how to plug the leaks in their defence as Courtney Lawes and Lewis Ludlam’s work rate exemplified their performance and, after the half-time break, they managed to sort they system to close Australia down.
England’s resources leading in to this series were depleted. Short of 13 or 14 squad players, five or six of which are nailed on starters, meant that Jones was forced to examine the youth of the Premiership, the results of which will give him a lot of pleasure moving into the pivotal 2022/23 season.
Van Poortvliet seems to have leapfrogged all contenders to become the best half-back England have. Sure, Jones started Care today and then promptly yanked him off after 34 minutes but knowing Eddie, his argument will be that was always the plan and that it worked to perfection. Tommy Freeman showed just why he’s so highly rated as he and Freddie Steward were easily England’s sharpest attacking forces, whilst Ollie Chessum also rose to the rather big ask of filling Maro Itoje’s size 12 boots.
However, at 10 and 12 we saw Smith and Owen Farrell just starting to gel (with a particular shout out to Smith’s tenacity in defence). It might not yet quite be the finished article, but this weekend the control they offered off the paucity of possession England had was just enough to make you believe that they are on the right path of their emerging and vital partnership.
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Elsewhere, Jonny Hill looks now to be a Test match animal, and there was big improvements shown by both tightheads, Will Stuart and Heyes.
With the modern game so reliant on a depth of squad Jones will be delighted in the lessons he’s learned and his resources look a lot deeper than when the tour commenced.
The final word
England will be delighted about the surety of their set-piece – Hill and Lawes are exceptional line-out operators, and when you factor Itoje into the equation, England have an absolutely world class set up. Hill’s defence of the driving maul also deserves a shout out – he stops the drive at source which allows his back-row to defend the pass rather than the drive.
They’ll be delighted about their competition at the breakdown too; sure, Lewis Ludlam is a classic six and half but what he cedes in jackal he makes up for in sheer physicality of drive.
The aerial game was a battle England won convincingly too – Steward must be one of the finest full-backs in the world right now and again, in this series, he was a tower of power and someone that featured in all of England’s best attacking moves.
Sure, there’s some work to do in attack but given the platform England have up front, their focus now will be to increase their skill level and phase play but also to sort out their wider defence. The flaws are easy to spot which makes them obvious foci to coach.
Australia are a couple of players short of a very good side. Always short of the depth of some of their southern hemisphere counterparts, they nevertheless have the quality of player needed to improve. Their biggest takeout will be that they created enough chances to win this game by a clear margin, but they resorted to running into the best part of the England defence where a little more thought might have told them to continue attacking the corners and channels that reaped them so much benefit in the first half.