The last 6 years of English rugby has largely been a waste of time, but tomorrow at the Subiaco Oval, Johnno’s men have a chance to progress as a critical 12-month period of rugby begins.
Between now and next summer, England need to get themselves into a position to look like worthy World Cup contenders. It is running out quickly, but there is still time, and for me the countdown begins tomorrow.
England’s Six Nations campaign was fairly abysmal, with a promising start giving way to mediocrity and selection errors, before a glimpse of what might have been in the first half against France. That brief passage of play in which England showed some dynamism, put some pace on the ball and created space for an exciting back three has stuck in the mind, and there is optimism about our chances against Australia.
I might have mentioned it once or twice, but England’s supply of quick ball has been non-existent in most of their recent outings. A lot of the criticism gets aimed at the backs and the fly-half in particular for creating nothing, but it’s the forwards that need to initiate momentum, clearing out rucks rather than flopping over them, taking short balls at pace to put defenders on the back foot (as opposed to falling over in front of them, 5 yards behind the gainline) and then getting out of the way when it’s time to spin it wide.
Against the Barbarians at Twickenham, it looked as though England were practising their offloading game, and it was great to see that the coaches had woken up to the fact that this is how the top teams have been playing for the last few years.
The pack that Johnno has selected ought to be able to deliver quick ball. Simon Shaw and Nick Easter are fine ball carriers with great hands, whilst Tom Croft and Lewis Moody can add some pace to proceedings, assuming Croft decides to get involved at the breakdown.
Back row contest
Australia are without George Smith and Phil Waugh, two mainstays of their back row in the last decade, but on their day, Rocky Elsom and David Pocock are still two of the finest flankers in the world.
Moody will have his work cut out against Pocock – he is a phenomenal player with incredible strength, and the England captain will need the support of his pack to make sure Pocock gets properly cleaned out at the ruck. He’s always low over the tackled man and difficult to shift, so he’ll need a big hit or two early on to make him think twice about competing for possession every time.
I don’t know a lot about Richard Brown (although the chances are he’s quicker than Nick Easter), but there’s an opportunity for Croft to shine against Elsom. The hero of Leinster hasn’t been quite as impressive in the Super 14 season, but neither has Croft – if he can rediscover his Lions form though when he was taking short balls and running good angles, always in support in the loose and generally just everywhere, he’ll do well. If he reverts to hanging around on the wing, it’s likely that Elsom will be more effective.
Australia have no shortage of ambition. It’s sometimes confused with arrogance, but they are certainly not afraid to experiment, throw the ball around and look for space.
England aren’t so practiced at this, but with Ben Foden and Chris Ashton at the back, they’ll surely look to run the ball more than they hoof it aimlessly which can only be good.
It has been said before, but England need to go out and play. They did that in the first half against France, and they found it to be effective – look for space, try to beat your opposite man and keep the ball moving.
England’s management have never been renowned for the substitute strategy, but on the bench this weekend is some talent.
Courtney Lawes, James Haskell and Ben Youngs could light up the game in the second half – particularly if the starting team have done their job playing at pace and tiring the defence – but it will depend on Johnno’s ambition. There’s a reasonable chance that he’ll view Lawes and Youngs as a risk and they won’t get on in a tight game, but where has conservatism got him during his two-year tenure?
And then there’s Jonny Wilkinson. He might want to answer a few critics, and he’s a pretty handy face to have on the bench, particularly against the Aussies as the clock ticks down (on the risky assumption that we are still in the game).
England have a real opportunity for a rare win on a summer tour, and it would be particularly refreshing to see a positive performance. A defeat is not a disaster, but a limp, lifeless, defensive game would be hugely frustrating.