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Despite fleeting moments of encouragement to bookend the series-opener in Perth, there is an unforgiving perspective to take on Eddie Jones’ first loss to Australia as England head coach.
The Wallabies had lost key personnel at fly-half, full-back and in the front row before Darcy Swain’s red card in the 34th minute. James Slipper had to last almost an hour as a tighthead prop. That gave England nowhere to hide. They had a gilt-edged opportunity to go 1-0 up.
And yet, it took a flourishing finish, led by electric youngster Henry Arundell, to inspire two late tries that flattered the tourists and added respectability. This is where England’s review will begin.
More missed chances
Inefficiency in the opposition 22 blighted the Six Nations for Jones’ side and that trend continued.
In the 19th minute, Australia were sliced with some slick interplay. Owen Farrell stood at first-receiver with Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Tom Curry cutting angles to his right.
This compressed forwards in the defensive line with Len Ikitau, the Australia centre holding back to cover Marcus Smith, who was arcing into a second wave as Joe Cokanasiga loomed on his shoulder:
Having played a number of pull-backs to Smith, Farrell hit the front wave. Curry tore past Ikitau for an incisive line-break:
Converting these chances is where England have been found wanting over recent years and, to nit-pick, could Curry have linked up with Smith and Danny Care on his left rather than looping the ball to Joe Marchant?
As it happened, Marika Koroibete recovered to make a fine tackle. Smith passed from the base to Itoje and, a phase later, England head wide via Farrell and Smith.
But only Jamie George and Nowell are in position anywhere close to the far touchline. Opposite them are Samu Kerevi, Andrew Kellaway and Nic White:
Smith attempts to step through and is stopped by the busy Dave Porecki. Australia concede a breakdown penalty but rather than shipping five or seven points, they concede three.
Another seminal moment arrived in the 56th minute. Having just scored a pushover try, England were pummelling away following another close-range line-out.
When Ellis Genge steps up at scrum-half to feed the tenacious Lewis Ludlam, England’s detail lets them down. Jamie George initially latches onto Ludlam yet slips beyond the ball and referee James Doleman rules that Itoje loses his balance under pressure from Michael Hooper:
Later on, as New Zealand did against Ireland hours previously, Australia would underline the importance of capitalising on field position.
England, conversely, will have had their energy sapped by a continuing failure to score tries.
England threw a variety of threats at Australia and created quick ball on numerous occasions. Billy Vunipola’s pass to Nowell in the back-field, for instance, ignited a stirring kick-return.
There were some sharp first-phase shapes and neat interplay between forwards. But uncertainty and a lack of dynamism stunted them, too. Players seemed to be on different wavelengths, especially when picking and going through the fringes to become isolated.
England resembled a team clunkily adapting to an unfamiliar creative axis in Smith and Farrell as they endeavour to move away from a kick-pressure template and break down opponents with phase-play.
That is precisely what they are. England only kicked 18 times across the 80 minutes. Australia did so on 19 occasions. England completed 155 passes to Australia’s tally of 111. The rope-a-dopers were rope-a-doped by Dave Rennie.
For context, according to statistician Russ Petty, England averaged 27 kicks per game over their eight-match winning run against the Wallabies between 2016 and 2021.
By Opta’s first count, England surrendered six of their 92 rucks – a tell-tale sign of confusion. Pete Samu’s jackal in the 72nd minute, following Ollie Chessum’s carry, denied them a shot at setting up a late charge.
Australia were forced to draft in James O’Connor at such late notice that he arrived in the changing room holding his suit:
Predictably, the hosts suffered pedestrian and messy moments. Yet they only lost three of 77 rucks. More pertinently, their first and third tries blended conviction and dynamism in a way that England could not manage until Arundell was introduced.
Jordan Petaia’s score reflected the simple, late movement that is a hallmark of Scott Wisemantel, the Wallabies’ attack coach.
Andrew Kellaway, and the effect he has on Cokanasiga and Steward in the defensive line, is the man to watch:
Ghosting around the back of Len Ikitau, he arrives on the centre’s right shoulder. This causes Steward to stay narrow just long enough and Kellaway’s take-and-give is all Petaia needs:
An explosive step off the right foot of Samu, flummoxing both Ludlam and Luke Cowan-Dickie, is worth noting, too:
Australia will grow in fluency, and have so much athleticism.
More late lapses
Australia had earned a penalty, from which they were destined to make it 6-6, when Swain was dismissed. After a reasonably assured opening, England had grown sluggish.
A grim period in the final quarter, during which the Wallabies piled up 21 unanswered points, mirrored more Six Nations failings.
In the aftermath of that tournament, Conor O’Shea offered up the questionable crumb of comfort that England had worked themselves into winning positions against Scotland and Ireland before fading.
Well, they did so again. From 14-9 ahead, they should have navigated their way to victory.
Compounding a poor second quarter, however, they appeared to dissolve from the moment that Koroibete rose above Nowell to gather Nic White’s restart in the 61st minute.
Two stinging insults, which Richard Cockerill and Matt Proudfoot should take personally, were the pushover try scored by Folau Fainga’a, fashioned by a clever grubber from Kellaway, and the scrum that splintered England in the 74th minute.
Slipper was the spearhead, which was fitting.