International rugby returns to Twickenham this weekend in the form of an Australia team hungry for, and confident of, success over hosts England. Despite the Wallabies’ recent troubles, it should not be forgotten that in their most recent international outings, they put in a highly respectable performance against the All Blacks, and absolutely walloped Argentina in Rosario. While England did the latter too over the summer, the Puma team they faced included far fewer first team players than the full strength line-up Australia dispatched with such ease. On top of that, the Aussies won at Twickenham in 2012 so it is not a place that holds any fear for them. That said, this is their first game on tour and in that fixture last year – against France – they were completely dismantled. It was almost embarrassing.
The home side enter the autumn with plenty of question marks surrounding the team. Injuries to several key players – including probably England’s only potentially ‘world class’ players (Manu Tuilagi and Alex Corbisiero) and a couple just below that bracket (Tom Croft, Geoff Parling) – mean Lancaster has named some untested combinations. Even taking into account injuries, however, Lancaster has, rather uncharacteristically given his propensity for the ‘credit in the bank’ system, chanced his arm in a few cases. The biggest surprise is the selection of Lee Dickson over Ben Youngs at scrum-half. The Northampton man is the form scrum-half in England right now, no doubt, and although Youngs has looked sluggish at times this season he has done little wrong in an England shirt, and impressed for the Lions over the summer. Dickson does not have the sharpness that Youngs does – he will not score 90m wonder tries – but he is much more effective at getting the ball away quickly, which will hopefully give Farrell and Twelvetrees more time and space to put a dangerous back three in space.
Joel Tomkins makes his debut, and it will be intriguing to see if he can translate some superb club form to the international arena. He is not the dazzling runner that Trinder is, but he picks some excellent lines and is a deft offloader. If the likes of Yarde and Ashton can run support lines off him the results could be devastating. Up front Mako Vunipola will be under pressure at scrum-time after failing to assert any dominance over the Aussies in a Lions shirt this summer. Having a new second row pairing – Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes – behind him is unlikely to help either, and while they will lend huge mobility to the pack the set piece may well suffer.
The biggest surprise from the Australian selection is not to do with personnel – it is about captaincy. Ben Mowen, who captained the national team in the absence of Horwill and Genia during several of the Rugby Championship games, continues on that leadership role despite the presence of both more senior players. Equally as shocking is the promotion of Quade Cooper, again over both Horwill and Genia, to vice-captain. McKenzie must be hoping that Cooper, who has not been the most responsible of figures in the past, will raise his game with this extra challenge laid in front of him. Still, it will be interesting to see how Horwill and Genia play, having effectively been snubbed for both roles.
As has been the case for years now, most of Australia’s problems are likely to stem from their front five. None of them will be causing England any sleepless nights, even without the pillar that is Alex Corbisiero. Michael Hooper is a gem of a player in the back-row, and the Australian backs have the potential to wreak havoc if – and it is a big if – they can secure quick and regular ball. Tevita Kuridrani is a hard-hitting, offloading centre whose duel with Tomkins sees two similar players line-up opposite each other. Israel Folau at fullback is a genuinely world-class athlete, never mind rugby player, who has just about everything to his game and is looking – ominously for England – more and more comfortable in union with every game that he plays. Any loose kicking will be punished.
All eyes on
After several Six Nations cameos from the bench and a starring role on the tour to Argentina, Billy Vunipola gets his first start at Twickenham. A hugely effective ball carrier, Saracens’ decision to deploy him at blindside on occasion this season has seen a big improvement in his work-rate, as well as a a greater propensity to do the nitty-gritty stuff. Back at his preferred no.8, however, his role will be well defined: get England over the gain line. There are few better at doing that.
In the opposition back-row, Michael Hooper is an integral cog in the Wallaby machine. Given the well-documented failings of the front five in front of him, his job of disrupting opposition ball is even more vital. He is deceptively quick, too, which allows him to get to more breakdowns than he misses. England’s six-and-a-half duo of Robshaw and Wood will have to work very hard to keep him quiet and secure the home side quick ball.
Head to head: Farrell v Cooper
While Farrell’s experience with the Lions has certainly opened up his style of play somewhat, there is no doubt this is a duel of contrasting styles. Cooper, when on form, is one of the most exciting players to watch in the world – the problem is, he hasn’t hit that sort of form regularly for some time now. Still, he is capable of things others can only dream of, and if it pays off it can change a game. Owen Farrell will never throw a 30m reverse pass behind his own goal-line to start a length of the field counter-attack try, but he can be equally influential in a game. His goal-kicking is usually dead-eye and his passing game has been steadily improving. If he stands flat enough he can bring a potentially exciting array of strike runners into play – but that, again, is a big if, and having not played in an England shirt since the Six Nations he may take a while to get back into the swing of things.
Without wanting to bang on about them too much, injuries mean this game will be a lot closer than it perhaps would have been. The Wallabies will come into the game with plenty of confidence given their much more impressive form in recent games, and will be more together as a unit given it is the end of their season. I’d expect a fair amount of rustiness from England, leading to an early Australian lead. Farrell, however, will steadily eat into that lead and then win it late on for the home side. England by 4.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images