Relief for England after Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell sink Australia

  • Second Test: Australia 17-25 England; series level at 1-1
  • Early try sets tone then Farrell kicks set up a Sydney decider

At last a little respite for English rugby after a difficult few months. The series is not yet won but it is still alive after a frantic, seesawing contest on a still Brisbane evening. England wobbled momentarily but 20 points from the boot of Owen Farrell and an early try for his Saracens teammate Billy Vunipola proved enough to secure their side’s first win in four Tests.

Given the Wallabies had not been beaten in their previous 10 matches at their favourite venue it was a result that will encourage the England management to believe their team could yet fly home triumphant. A strong first-half forward display propelled their team into a crucial 19-0 first-half lead and, despite a spirited Wallaby fightback, the early flood of points was decisive.

It probably ranks as the visitors’ most satisfying win outside England since the 2019 World Cup semi-final, with a decider in Sydney on Saturday still to come. With Ireland also winning in Dunedin, the north has had a positive weekend and on the balance of the two games there is no reason why they cannot enjoy a highly satisfying conclusion to a long season.

There is already plenty to admire about England’s newest scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet, who had a fine first international start. His Leicester colleague Freddie Steward was also consistently excellent, with England reeling in their victory without Maro Itoje, whose tour is over after a heavy collision in the first half, and Sam Underhill, who followed him off in the second.

The body count was extensive on both sides and selection for the third Test at the SCG may be largely a case of picking whoever is left standing. The home side lost their clearly dazed full-back Jordan Petaia after three minutes and his replacement, Izaia Perese, suffered a serious knee injury. What hurt the Wallabies most of all, though, was a lack of accuracy after they had closed to within five points towards the end of the third quarter, the most costly being a crooked lineout throw when they were really threatening to crank up the attacking pressure.

By that point England were even more grateful for their fast start. Barely five minutes had elapsed when a smart lineout switch back to a front pod combined to drive Vunipola over, with Farrell’s conversion and two further penalties giving England a 13-point cushion inside the first 15 minutes.

Things were about to go from bad to worse for Australia. A hopeful long pass from Marcus Smith came close to being intercepted by Perese but the substitute’s one-handed attempt did not stick and, by the letter of the law, earned him a yellow card. Farrell kicked another penalty to deflate the local mood still further.

Owen Farrell takes a kick
Owen Farrell kicked 20 of England’s 25 points. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

Everything seemed to be going for England all of a sudden: a ricocheted deflection fell nicely for Underhill and only a fine tackle by Hunter Paisami stopped Jack Nowell as he accelerated towards the right corner. The Wallaby defence was being both pummelled and stretched like fresh pastry dough.

Another ruck penalty followed and so, inevitably, did another Farrell penalty. Australia needed something urgently and a scrum penalty for an illegal England wheel finally gave them their first attacking possession in the visiting 22.

To the relief of the home support they made the most of it, with the massive Taniela Tupou rumbling over from close range.

Itoje’s evening ended shortly afterwards, with the lock slightly misjudging his attempted tackle on Paisami and taking a heavy blow that left him temporarily unable to get back to his feet. Off he went to be replaced by Leicester’s Ollie Chessum, further increasing the brood of Tiger cubs on the field. Their club skipper, Ellis Genge, was also having a good game, marred only by a sly forearm caress to the head of Nic White that yielded an Australia penalty but nothing more.

The injury-strewn encounter soon claimed another victim when the luckless Perese twisted horribly on landing and was carted away. Rugby may be a compelling sport but its dark underbelly, both in terms of casualty rates and law-related inconsistencies, grows ever harder to ignore.

It was to Australia’s credit, then, that they regrouped swiftly and scored a second try after 48 minutes, Noah Lolesio’s nice pass giving Samu Kerevi the chance to touch down just inside the dead ball line. It really did feel as if the tide was turning when Smith was sent to the sin-bin for a finger-tip knock-on as Australia again surged forward and Lolesio chipped over another three points.

With Underhill and the reserve Australia prop Scott Sio the latest casualties to leave the fray, it was therefore highly significant when a 67th-minute Farrell penalty, his sixth of the contest, restored England’s advantage to eight points. Nothing was remotely guaranteed, given the visitors’ recent penchant for fading in the final quarter and three new caps now on the field, but this time they held firm.

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Eddie Jones looked a much happier man, rightly praising the spirit of his young side and already relishing a series decider in his old home town. It has been a long old season but suddenly those English squad members who can still walk have a renewed spring in their step.


Robert Kitson at Suncorp Stadium

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