Physicality and freedom to express: how England can beat the Aussies

Stuart Peel throws his hat into the ring for England’s next manager with this gameplan to defeat Australia

The change in England’s fortunes in the past 4 years is emphasised by the prospect of the quarter final against Australia. It may be a repeat of the last World Cup final but a glance at the odds on offer will show you that this game is a world away from Clive’s big night out in Sydney. 7-2 on is about as good as you will get on an Aussie victory and on the evidence of the World Cup so far, you could not really argue with that. As England have stuttered along, Australia have been cranking through the gears and look like they could do some damage in the latter stages of the tournament.

So do England have a chance of causing a serious upset? Northern Hemisphere teams have been shown up in many aspects of the game in this tournament and there are some which will not be remedied in a week. Technique and physicality at the tackle area heads this list. However, there are aspects of the game which England can and must put right over the course of the next week if the crown they have worn so heavily for the past 4 years is not to be relinquished on Saturday.

The breakdown

One thing that is certain on Saturday is that if England do not improve at the breakdown, they will get hammered. George Smith is the master of turning ball over and if England do not compete then they will feed Australia with a stream of the turnover ball from which they can be so dangerous. England must sharpen up all aspects of their play at the breakdown. Firstly, they must win the initial contact, in attack and defence. England have struggled to cross the gain line and if they are knocked backwards, Smith and co will pounce. Therefore the support players must be in close attendance ready to drive the ball carrier forward or clear out the awaiting defenders. Turnover ball has become the most effective attacking ball in rugby and England must negate Smith to prevent him from supplying it to his backs.

The back row

Following on from this, it is crucial that England achieve some semblance of balance in the back row, something they have struggled to do. They require dynamism, pace and power, or in other words, Moody, Rees and Easter. Moody showed against Samoa that he has the fearlessness and physicality to compete with anyone and deserves to start, but he is not an openside. Worsley is even less of an openside and his lack of pace should count against him when compared to Moody. Tom Rees must play and be given the chance to have a crack at George Smith. It will be a baptism of fire for him but one which he should relish. Nick Easter has limitations but has shown more in this tournament than Corry and Dallaglio, not least his eagerness to stay on his feet in contact.


Inside centre remains England’s problem position and nobody has filled it with much distinction so far. Olly Barkley’s defence was exposed against Tonga and Australia will send monsters like Stirling Mortlock, Lote Tuqiri and Wycliffe Palu into the 12 channel all day long. The temptation will be to recall Farrell but Matt Giteau would run rings round him and Barkley should keep his place. However, England should try to work on a defensive system which protects the midfield defence by aiming to put a back rower there when possible or even bringing up Josh Lewsey, a tremendous defender, into the line and dropping Barkley, whose kicking game is superior to Lewsey’s, to the back in defence. I doubt England will do this, not least because of Lewsey’s last ditch tackling, but they need to embrace flexibility.

Wide defence

Although Matthew Tait began to show signs against Tonga that he may be finding his attacking feet on the international stage, he was guilty of hanging back in defence and not moving up with the rest of the line. Australia favour passing the ball behind decoy runners with the big back three men pouring through the 13 channel and beyond. To counter this, the defending outside centre needs if anything to move up ahead of the rest to close down the space. Hopefully England’s video analysts have been hard at work and will identify this or Tuqiri, Latham and co could have a field day in the wide channels.

Kicking game

England’s kicking game has been woeful at this World Cup, Australia’s superb. Berrick Barnes has stepped seamlessly into Larkham’s boots and Chris Latham has a kicking range matched by few. If England kick poorly, Australia will either return it with interest or counter attack with conviction. Sadly, Australia also have rather a good lineout which England may struggle to disrupt. They must therefore be very precise and, where possible, kick to retrieve. This tournament has seen the resurgence of the garryowen and it is an option which England should consider rather than kicking deep because that would feed one of Australia’s strengths.

Lose inhibition

First and foremost, England must attempt to shed the tactical strait jacket which has restricted them. They are a limited team but they must be allowed to respond to what they see in front of them, if indeed they can recall how. At times in this tournament, you have almost seen players trying to remember what a coach has told them to do in a particular situation rather than playing what they see. The contrast with the exuberance with which the South Sea Islanders have played is stark. It would be good to see England free to actually play some rugby.

This may seem too much to address in the space of a week but in fact it amounts to a couple of tactical tweaks, and a change of mindset in the physical parts of the game. England have players who could and should be playing better than they are. Let us hope that they all come together when it matters most.

2 thoughts on “Physicality and freedom to express: how England can beat the Aussies

  1. Sounds like a plan! And you never know, the seemingly unflappable Barnes might start to lose it as the intensity of the knock-out stages increases, a la Michalak in the 2003 semi-final. It’s easy to forget that he’s still an unknown quantity.

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