David Pocock is like a big lump of lead. He could stand the middle of a yacht in the Sydney to Hobart race and defy the raging tempest of a storm in Bass Strait. The man is ballast. It’s like he’s heavier than normal people. And over the ball, hoovering it up, all balance, body-height and impossible arms, you’d sooner shift a piano up the stairs. And the Wallabies would accept no substitute.
Unless they have to because he’s injured, of course, in which case they could bung in the tearaway Sean McMahon. Or they could replace Pocock at No8 with Ben McCalman or Wycliff Palu, two big bodies who’ve been around. There’s even the dextrous and nimble openside “fetcher”, Queensland’s Liam Gill.
But to combat these fit and strong and smart men of England, Wallabies fans will wish that Pocock’s cheekbones were made of the Terminator’s titanium that they appear to be. For Australia could not have lost a more important man about ruck and maul. Pocock owns the ground.
And yet … and yet the new boy, McMahon, is a hard-running gun in the Michael Hooper mould, though probably even more of a hard-arse. Hooper, as his two tries in the first Test showed, could almost play in the backs. Indeed he did play inside-centre against the Lions in 2013. He can motor, Micky Hooper, and McMahon has some of that. McMahon can run. Indeed Wallabies coach Michael Cheika considered starting McMahon with Pocock and Hooper in an all-No7 back-row. He’s a belter, Sean McMahon.
Yet Scott Fardy held his spot in the No6 because his ball- and penalty-winning ability is strong enough. He learned it from Pocock. A couple of years ago Fardy came back from Japan on forty grand, barely enough to pay Canberra rent. But he learned from being around Pocock, learned about body height, targeted strength, dexterity in the maelstrom. Pocock, like the great George Smith, can inspire just by doing. Smith has coached England. All he’d have said is, “this is how I’d do it”. It’s plenty.
And thus Cheika, shrewd and hard and interesting man that he is, has some game-planning and team selecting to do. With Pocock out, experienced lock Rob Simmons in doubt, and England buzzing after their first win in Brisbane, tactics and man-management will count plenty towards Saturday’s must-win Test match.
The game plan? If the Wallabies can rip off 80 minutes like their first 20 last Saturday, they could put a cricket score on England. From kick-off Australia’s plan was clear: run England ragged. Throw the ball wide, sideline-to-sideline, and repeat. Run and run and run. Quick ball from the breakdown, Nick Phipps shooting it out towards whatever side Israel Folau was on. Get it out there, get them running, make that Gilbert sing. And in that first 20 minutes of Blitzkrieg, the Wallabies dominated. It was entertaining stuff.
But England didn’t go away. They hung tough, held on and didn’t panic. And Eddie Jones’s “Bodyline rugby” kicked in. And the game slowed to England’s pace. They set the tempo. Their forwards won penalties over the ball. Owen Farrell kicked goals. Bernard Foley had a try disallowed and soon enough it was 10-9. And England effectively controlled things from there. It was smart, hard, pro rugby.
Unlike in the World Cup, England seemed to embrace an “identity”. Their set piece was strong. They kicked well for position and kept their forwards moving forward. Athletic lock Maro Itoje was great in the lineout. Prop Dan Cole dominated Scott Sio and hooker and captain Dylan Hartley was powerful in tight.
But mainly it was about controlling tempo. They took their time at set piece. Farrell took his time kicking for goals, George Ford took his time kicking for touch. Once they were leading the game, they could do as they pleased. And the Wallabies were penalised in the scrum by a referee who once he’d seen one scrum dominate the other, couldn’t un-see it. Perception or reality, it amounted to the same thing: three points Owen Farrell.
England’s attack without the ball was strong. Rushing defence, onside or otherwise, it amounted to the same thing. And they were executed effectively in contact. It was pressure footy. It’s always bothered the Wallabies, particularly a backline missing Will Genia, Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
It was what that caused England’s first try. Folau flung a dud to Foley before debutant No12 Samu Kerevi realised quickly that bad things were happening and fumbled before Jonathan Joseph swooped to score. And the Wallabies, for all their endeavour and running and “entertaining” rugby were behind 16-10. And they chased tails from there.
Cheika and Foley will have plans to counter that fast-rushing “D”. Double cut-passes, a grubber, a chip for a runner. Switch the play inside, then switch it again. Play phase ball. Get some broken field action happening. Angled snipes from halfback, five-eighth and No12. Get some continuity, some flow. Tire the big bastards out.
But England are fit. Eddie Jones’s strength and conditioning man John Pryor also has a mandate to eek out the weak. And England’s backs can run a bit, too. There are movers out wide and variety in the 10-and-12, as Luther Burrell’s early hook shows. England can make the Gilbert sing themselves.
But they probably won’t. They’ll win how they have to. If they can amass 36 points from 12 penalty goals, so be it. It seems to suit something in “English” bloody-mindedness, that it’s preferable to scrap for a win instead of playing for one, if that makes sense. And it seems Jones has tapped into that. See the celebrations for scrum penalties. England have not come to Australia to entertain. Australians can please – or indeed make metaphorical love to – themselves. Jones’ England have no mandate to enthuse Australian rules or rugby league fans in a “competitive sporting market”. England just want to win. And, anyway, England fans will be entertained more than enough if they win in Melbourne, however it occurs.
Cheika said after the match that “it makes it hard to get the speed of the game going when it’s being punctuated by that many penalties”. It wasn’t an excuse or cop-out, it was fact. First 20 minutes, no penalties, up 10-nil. Lose the count 15-8, and give a kicker like Farrell enough chances, he’ll make you pay.
So how to beat them? Two words: organised chaos. From this standpoint, Cheika should throw in McMahon, have fliers either side of the ruck, and send the ball zapping around the ground, all parts of it. Secure it with those quality back-rowers and whoever’s there. And repeat. And attack. And the referee should reward that, as was the case at scrum time in the first Test: go-forward, dominant pack wins penalties. And controls the game.