England capped off the Autumn Internationals with a resounding 37-18 victory over Australia. It took them to six straight wins over the Wallabies and meant they ended the series with three victories alongside a loss to the world champions New Zealand by a solitary point – certainly an outcome most England fans would have taken had you offered it at the start.
Of course, this is far from a vintage Australian team, but as the cliché goes, you can only play the side in front of you and there was much in England’s performance to be encouraged by.
The first positive was the set piece. Jones was keen to highlight this in the press conference after the match – applauding Sky for getting the man-of-the-match ‘right for a change’ in choosing Kyle Sinckler. Although in Jones eyes it was purely for his scrummaging, his bulldozing runs barely worthy of discussion. ‘Australia expect to get scrummed hard’, he said, ‘If they don’t they think they are in it’.
Right from the start of his tenure, Jones talked about building a team built on ‘English’ foundations of a strong set piece and the team finally seems to be getting there. Although sterner tests than this Australian front row await, and the number of scrums per game is much lower than in recent years, it certainly feels like a while since England have put in a dominant scrummaging display. In fact, it has been pretty good throughout the series – a couple against South Africa aside.
While teams are unlikely to milk penalty after penalty from a scrum anymore, with referees putting the onus on getting the ball out and restarting play, what is often forgotten is just what a fantastic attacking platform the scrum is. When you are on top, you tie in the opposition back row creating space around the fringes to attack – something England used to excellent effect on Saturday. Just look at their first score: England take advantage of the retreating Australian pack to attack the blind side, Mark Wilson feeding Ben Youngs who easily puts Jonny May into the corner.
Jonny May gets England off to the perfect start ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 24, 2018
Sinckler has spent much of Jones’ reign playing second fiddle to Dan Cole, often viewed as an impact substitute (and again for the Lions), but he is firmly in charge of the shirt now – and fast becoming a complete modern prop.
As well as Sinckler stepping up, what pleased me most in this game – and generally throughout the series – has been the performances of players who, had everyone been fit, might not have had any game time.
Wilson was superb again. Nominally a flanker for club, and a compete novice as an international number eight, he has now gone toe-to-toe with the three much feted Southern Hemisphere’s backrows. Against Australia he made a huge 17 carries, making 68 metres – as well as doing a lot of hard graft on the floor. As Jones said, ‘he’s not afraid to put his head in dark places’. Not a bad afternoon’s work at all.
Considering he was arguably fourth choice number eight going into the series, and maybe third choice six, he has now made himself pretty indispensable to the side.
A mention as well to Joe Cokanasiga. The 21-year-old is another who has come from outside the established squad and is demanding attention. He has the physicality Jones has been craving to introduce in his backline for a while – although, like buses, they all come at once, a 12,13,14 combo of Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi and Cokanasiga seen briefly together on the field.
How Michael Hooper managed to deny him a second try, I am still not quite sure, but my moment of the match is his complete ignorance of the fact Dane Haylett-Petty was apparently trying to tackle him.
TRY! England score again with a fantastic finish from @JoeCokanasiga ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 24, 2018
Jones joked after the game that ‘he still has his training pants on. Wait until he gets his proper trousers’. But given England’s strength in depth in the back three, and a looming World Cup, it will be interesting to see if Jones thinks he can step Cokanasiga up to the required level, or whether he should invest the game time into already established players. With Chris Ashton back in favour, May scoring tries for fun and the indispensable Elliot Daly (wherever he plays), and not forgetting two Lions in Jack Nowell and a returning Anthony Watson, given a usual 31-man squad only has five back-three options, someone is going to miss out in Japan. What does Jones think is his best combination of options? I have a sneaking suspicion that Cokanasiga may make the cut.
Also a quick mention of some of England’s running lines. They were excellent on Saturday – considering some of the stodgy attack play we have seen from England in 2018, there was a real endeavour to cut the line and change the angle of attack. I think having some attention-grabbing size in the backline has really helped with this – Te’o drew Matt Toomua out of the line for Daly’s try, while Tuilagi held Samu Kerevi to allow Farrell to cruise through. In contrast, the midfield combo of Ford/Cipriani, Farrell and Slade from earlier in the year lacked that direct threat to fix the opposition defence and open space out wide.
However, alongside all these positives, again I have to raise the issue of England’s composure and, particularly, switching off at key moments – most of all when they had just scored. It is one of my biggest frustrations: when you have just scored and you immediately let the opposition back in with a simple error.
It happened twice in the first half, England conceding points straight after scoring themselves.
And thinking back to how England conceded 10 points to New Zealand in the final minute of the first half, there does seem to be a tendency for England to zone out when they are on top.
We also have to discuss Owen Farrell. Reinstated to his preferred position, I thought he has been fantastic this series – conducting the backline well, dead-eyed with his kicking, heroic in defence and sharp in attack. He has now scored more points against Australia than any other Englishman.
What does concern me, however, is just how reliant England are on him right now. He seems to bring an energy to the side which raises the game of everyone around him; case in point, when England were struggling against Japan, it was Farrell that Jones introduced at the start of the second half to give a shot in the arm to his fumbling team.
England have maybe five world class players in their squad, but Farrell is the only irreplaceable one in my view. We have seen how England can function this series without the Vunipolas, while there is a queue of quality locks behind Maro Itoje. But George Ford, or Danny Cipriani for that matter, for all their skills, do not bring that same commanding presence or vitality to the side. Farrell is the one player England have to hope is there come Japan 2019.
My other concern is around those tackles. For the second time this series, Farrell is a very, very lucky guy to escape without sanction. Numerous commentators and pundits have called his tackle on Izack Rodda as a card and penalty try – while Australia coach Michael Cheika called it ‘ludicrous’, saying ‘if [Farrell’s tackle at the end of the South Africa game] was worth a penalty, this one should have been three.’
Whatever your personal view on this, you have to admit Farrell is walking a very fine line – not least as he is beginning to earn himself a reputation. I wouldn’t want to bet on him escaping sanction for a third challenge of that ilk. He needs to sort out his technique and fast.
What were your thoughts on the game?
By Henry Ker