No disgrace for Wallabies but lowered future expectations may be called for | Matt Cleary

Michael Cheika’s side have not been completely awful during the June Test series but whatever they threw at England they just couldn’t land the killer blow

After last week’s Test match in which the Wallabies attempted to break down England’s 15-man wall of hard-bodied humanity with the cunning tactic of running at it head first, Michael Cheika’s men brought variety to Saturday night’s party. There was greater creativity, guile and endeavour. They were competitive, occasionally dominant at scrum, lineout and breakdown. And they threw it around and ran it about and scored some rather fine tries. And still they lost to England, again.

Haven’t they been good, England? Hard and focused and physical. They’ve played the rugby they’ve had to. They’ve won different Tests different ways. They’ve been belligerent, unbowed and un-bullied. And they’ve scrapped like convicts in a prison riot. England, we have learned across three Test matches of hard-boned jolting footy action, are really quite good at rugby.

The Wallabies haven’t been completely awful, and weren’t completely awful in Sydney on Saturday night. And yet whatever they threw at England - and it was plenty – they couldn’t land the killer blow. England attacked and defended with alacrity, and were the better, more clinical team. The Wallabies scored more tries, but really, so what?

Pre-match pundits were talking up England’s potential for lolly legs at the end of a long playing season. But if anything they grew stronger. Eddie Jones and his fitness man John Pryor – apparently something of a mad zealot even by the kooky standards of the health and fitness industry – has England ripped and fit. And Jones emptied his bench judiciously. And they continued to hit and be hit.

Five-eighth Bernard Foley was pretty good for Australia, running the show and keeping England’s rushing defence guessing with some tidy kicks short and high. Unlike the first two Tests, the Wallabies didn’t “run everything” as Eddie Jones had correctly assumed and advised his men thus.

But England’s kicking was supreme. Deep, for the corners, often out. Forwards jog forward with more alacrity. One of these long-range touch-finders begat a lineout that the Wallabies botched which begat a scrum which begat a try to No8 Billy Vunipola, a rolling boulder of a man.

From there it was all England. They won Stephen Moore’s next line out, won a penalty from the resulting breakdown and watched Owen Farrell – whose interesting sway-backed run-up mannerism halfway will be copied like Jonny Wilkinson’s praying hands – land his yet another laser beam goal.

Again, the Wallabies weren’t disgraced. Michael Hooper was his usual Energiser Bunny morphed with rum-soaked Ram Man self. Dane Haylett-Petty was impressive on the wing. Matt Toomua seems a lock at No12 if for no other reason than he seems the most effective method to put the ball in Israel Folau’s hands on the run. Cheika could think about putting Haylett-Petty in his preferred role of fullback and put Folau in the No13 where his mandate could be: run, Israel, run. Tevita Kuridrani? He couldn’t break free this series, a credit again to England’s meaty wall.

The Wallabies played a lot smarter than the previous week. Instead of trying to break through the wall with a succession of battering rams, there were angles to their running lines and guile to their attack. Chip kicks and grubbers, these things serve to put doubt in a defender’s mind. And the Wallabies did enough to beat most teams.

Folau in the 57th minute probably should have iced it. Previous England teams might’ve thought, well, we’ve done well to get this close, good for us. But this England keeps coming. And they believe.

The Wallabies did plenty right but gave away penalties. Cheika called it “inaccuracy” at the breakdown. But it’s really just dumb rugby. Test match rugby, you take the points, you kick long, you chase and tackle like fiends. And you work the referee to your advantage. You almost have to earn the right to run the ball. And the Wallabies, without David Pocock, Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Will Genia and James Horwill, didn’t play smart.

Nick Phipps, for one, can be a headless chook. He’s super-fit, but always playing full-on can make a man tend to the erratic. And when Phipps’ blood is up, dumb things happen. Sean McMahon’s an openside flyer who can play No8 but it doesn’t mean he should. Scott Fardy’s work-rate is never in question but he’s been relatively anonymous this series apart from giving away penalties, usually to the delight of England’s annoyer-in-chief, Maro Itoje.

But the 21-year-old’s lack of respect – and fear– is indicative of what Eddie Jones has brought out in his squad. He’s tapped into something in each player. There’s a cussed, ornery quality to England. They seem to revel in being disliked and you can guarantee Jones would’ve been telling his players how much Aussies disdain Poms. It doesn’t matter if it’s nine parts bunkum; Jones has been in their ear.

Look at fullback Mike Brown after he scored his cracking 30th minute try – his celebration was part exultation, part raised middle finger to the home crowd. Dan Cole looks like a bouncer who revels in back-alley dirty work. Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, the chunky tackle machine James Haskell, hard cases all. And they roughed up Australia from kick-off in Brisbane to denouement in Sydney.

This “Bodyline” tour – a brilliant bit of branding by a mind games master– has been a spirited three weeks of top Test rugby. And away England fly to fill the Cook Cup with Boddington’s Bitter and knight Sir Eddie, as Wallabies fans dimly realise what a sporting life might be like as a middling rugby nation with more chance of winning next year’s Superbowl than the Bledisloe Cup.

Could three-nil against England now be the new normal? Australian rugby, with its dearth of depth and some of its best players injured or in France, might now be better off setting lower expectations for itself, so in the event of more of these kind of results, there is less surprise – and less pain to cope with.


Matt Cleary

The GuardianTramp

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