As England talk of physical domination prior to their hardest assignment of the autumn, Australia speak of their hard edge and of bullying – the quick bowlers have been falling like flies before the Ashes but there will be a Bodyline flavour at Twickenham if both sides live up to their billing.
The Wallabies have arrived with a spring in their step and a confidence that comes from a seven-match unbeaten run, including victories over New Zealand and, last week, Wales. They come with a reputation for sleight of hand and fleetness of foot but Eddie Jones was not wrong when he described Australia as “a physical juggernaut”.
Their power has been diminished by the late withdrawal of the second row Adam Coleman – Joe Launchbury was picked precisely to combat his muscle – but they have two hulking centres in Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani with Kurtley Beale conducting the battering rams from full-back.
It was not so long ago, however, that the Wallabies looked more like walkovers – trailing New Zealand 40-6 in the opening match of the Rugby Championship in August. As Jones has pointed out, it is not the first time that Michael Cheika has rebuilt this side but his captain, Michael Hooper, speaks of a steel that makes the Wallabies an immediate threat to England’s winning run at Twickenham – a sequence that stretches back to their 2015 World Cup humiliation at the hands of Australia.
“What I can say is our team at the moment is gelling really well, we’re enjoying each other’s company and doing hard work, going out on to the field each day doing consistently hard work,” Hooper said. “We’ve shown through starting to build consistency and win games in different ways that you are starting to see a hard edge – and we’re liking where we’re progressing.”
Jones is expecting a cagey match with the weather playing its part while if there was any surprise in Bob Dwyer’s comments about the legality of England’s scrum it is that it took him until Friday to make them. David Campese has also lobbed a few of his usual grenades – some things never change and, by the same token, it is sure to be a furious contest on Saturday.
The war of words between Jones and Cheika has not quite exploded but it has simmered along towards the back end of the week. Cheika’s chief complaint is that England have adopted a tactic of hitting Australia’s half-backs late in the Wallabies’ four defeats to Jones’s side since 2016 – “bullying” was how he described it.
“ I know it’s something the halves have been working on,” said Hooper. “You’ve got to be careful with doing it, you can give away a penalty. Every time you play in big games there’s going to be things like that coming up but all we can go on is what we’ve seen in the last couple of Test matches and it hasn’t been a big issue.
“It’s certainly to try to slow our ball down. Tactically if you’re half-back’s not at the next ruck, they have more of an opportunity to get a turnover or get pressure on your ball. It’s just a tactic that you see not only England do, but a lot of other teams around the world and throughout this year.”
It means the spotlight will shine that little brighter on the referee Ben O’Keeffe – a 28-year-old ophthalmologist from New Zealand – but of more pressing concern to Cheika should be the penalty count in Cardiff last weekend. Australia conceded 15 penalties to Wales’s four – a fair whack of them around the ruck as his side struggled to adjust to the law amendments. Indeed, Hooper was shown a yellow card for persistent infringement at the breakdown.
“A lot of those penalties were around the ruck, myself included,” he added. “Everything happens so quick and when you do get it wrong, like at the back end of that game, you get a bit frantic and maybe we were a bit frantic. I didn’t help by leaving 14 men on the field.”
Australia can take heart from the fact that they will no doubt be more accustomed to the law tweaks this week but there can be no doubting that Coleman’s absence – enforced because of a thumb injury – is a considerable blow. In his place there is a debut for Blake Enever, a 26-year-old who became a regular on the Super Rugby scene only in 2015.
“We’re going to have to play it by ear aren’t we? I don’t know a huge amount of Blake on the field and we’re excited to see it,” said Hooper. “He’s really impressed around training. He’s really impressed around the knowledge that he’s brought and it’s now time to bring it out on the field.”