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Eddie Jones’ side were following in a rich English sporting tradition when they collapsed in Perth. From being 14-9 up with a man advantage entering the last quarter at the Optus Stadium, England conceded three tries in about the same time that it used to take for Shane Warne to mop up the Poms’ tail over the Swan River at the Waca.
A keen cricketing fan, Jones will not appreciate the comparison but the England head coach should be far more alarmed by his side’s habitual tendency to crumble in the last 20 minutes. This year, they have lost the final quarter in six of their seven matches, only beating Italy 7-0.
Until debutant replacements Henry Arundell and Jack van Poortvliet struck when the game was gone on Saturday, England had registered only one try in nearly 140 minutes of play during this critical period. The aggregate final-quarter score in 2022 currently reads 23-97, which is a total you would typically associate with a developing nation unable to keep pace with an established country’s greater fitness and resources.
This statistic is even more concerning than the 11 tries that England have scored in six Tests (five of which were against Italy) or four away wins since the World Cup (two in Rome). The perennial problems of indiscipline, lack of cutting edge and poor decision-making come into even greater focus in the final quarter when the majority of matches are won or lost.
This is an issue that predates Jones and almost necessitated his appointment. The Rugby Football Union looked for Jones to be Eddie the Exorcist, banishing the ghosts of the 2015 World Cup, as much as Eddie the Super Coach.
But those demons have never been conquered. As Jones said after the extraordinary 31-0 blown lead against Scotland in 2019: “It’s like we have some hand-grenades in the back of a jeep and sometimes they go off when there’s a lot of pressure. We have a few of them, and we’ve got to get rid of them.”
Jones still drove that jeep to the 2019 World Cup final (where the Springboks won the final quarter 14-0), but the grenades have kept going off and there was yet another explosion on Saturday.
Jones was quite correct when he stated that England should have been further ahead at 14-9, which was not even taking into account Darcy Swain’s red card or the three key players Australia had lost to injury.
Owen Farrell missed five points with the boot, although he created England’s best opportunity in the first half when he put Tom Curry through a hole in the Australian defensive line. Only an excellent cover tackle by Marika Koroibete prevented Joe Marchant scoring in the corner.
Still the opportunity was there for England to score but with an overlap beckoning play was pulled back first to Farrell and then to Smith who was left isolated. Australia infringed in the tackle, allowing Farrell to kick England 6-0 ahead.
After conceding needless penalties either side of half-time converted by Noah Lolesio, England responded strongly through Ellis Genge’s try from a maul. England had another close-range maul.
This time Australia stopped its progress. So Jack Nowell and then Lewis Ludlam carried into the guts of the Wallabies defence. But the cleaning crew of Jamie George and Maro Itoje both went off their feet. Michael Hooper needed no second invitation to jackal the penalty. “We let them off the hook a few times,” scrum-half Danny Care said. “I thought at times we were about to cut loose.”
At this point, the partisan Australian television commentators stated England were “starting to bully” the Wallabies. They were in control.
It felt uncannily similar to the position they were in at Murrayfield against Scotland in February when they led 17-10 at the hour mark. The catalyst for that particular defeat was Luke Cowan-Dickie’s yellow card amid some rank indiscipline. The common theme was that in both cases England were unable to apply the old Sir Clive Woodward principle of TCUP (Thinking Correctly Under Pressure).
Mistakes abounded from Billy Vunipola’s yellow card to allowing Hooper to snaffle another turnover on his own try line after some sloppy clearing. “Sometimes they were beating us there, sometimes we weren’t clearing them effectively,” Itoje said. “It was obviously an area they targeted.”
Most galling of all was the scrum with six minutes remaining. With both teams down to seven forwards, England scrummed with Lewis Ludlam at No 8 but without a blindside flanker. Australia targeted Will Stuart with a concerted shove. With no second shoulder to support him, the tighthead was crunched. Wallabies penalty. Game over. Again.
So are these recurrent collapses physical or psychological? Both Courtney Lawes and Itoje looked exhausted in the second half which is no surprise when you consider they have played nearly 12 months of continuous rugby since the Lions tour. There have also been suggestions of Jones “flogging” players in training before the Barbarians defeat.
Tired players can be rested but the intractable problem is of England lacking the wherewithal to climb their way out of a hole. They seem wholly unable to adapt to shifts in momentum. That is a mental issue, which may predate Jones but is coming to define the latter half of his reign.
Time for solutions is running out. England left Perth, the most isolated city in the world, but Brisbane - where the Wallabies have won their last 10 fixtures -is going to feel even more desolate unless Jones finally exorcises England’s late ghosts.