Every series win in the southern hemisphere is a notable effort, regardless of how it is achieved. If the overall quality levels this month rarely matched Ireland’s momentous efforts in New Zealand, England are flying home with the Ella-Mobbs Trophy and the wily Eddie Jones has once again enjoyed the last laugh over his countrymen.
Never mind that England have clicked only sporadically in Australia and have been up against a Wallabies side who have frequently let them wriggle off the hook. Another series is heading northwards, with a breakaway Marcus Smith try after 55 minutes and another concerted late defensive effort proving just enough to clinch a second hard-earned victory in successive weekends.
Not for the first time in the series Australia cranked things up in the final quarter, a close-range try by their replacement hooker Fainga’a Folau making it 21-17 with 14 minutes left. Minus the absent Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, it was to the visitors’ credit that they had just enough in their end-of-season tanks to withstand the green and gold surge.
The balance of England’s attacking game clearly still needs attention but they have won consecutive fixtures they could easily have lost. That implies there is little wrong with the squad’s spirit and they have also unearthed some youthful talent which is set to ripen further over the next year or so.
It may even be that these two sides meet again in the last eight of next year’s Rugby World Cup in France depending on certain pool results. If so, England will not want to allow their opponents 60% of the ball and cannot rely on the Wallabies making a wombat’s ear of as many scoring opportunities as they did here.
For the first 50 minutes it made for a decidedly underwhelming spectacle, most notable for Jones’s decision to haul off his starting scrum-half, Danny Care, after just 36 minutes. In front of the green-roofed, pavilioned splendour of one of cricket’s most iconic venues, the first half in particular felt a bit like watching two teams battling to hit anything off the square.
With better execution Australia could have created a significant early cushion. Noah Lolesio pushed a penalty attempt just wide and a poor pass from Reece Hodge wasted a potential try-scoring opportunity for Tom Wright. When Taniela Tupou also threw a terrible pass to an unmarked Nick Frost with the line wide open, England were spared again.
The upside from the hosts’ perspective was the slickness of their approach play and the laboured nature of England’s early efforts. Owen Farrell even put a 22-metre drop-out into touch on the full and his first points of the game, via a 17th-minute penalty, came entirely against the run of play.
It was the third time in this series that Australia had failed to score any points in the opening quarter but the drought did break shortly afterwards. Some sharp midfield passing gave Wright the chance to get outside Tommy Freeman and an exchange of passes with Nic White, playing his 50th Test, put the winger over in the corner with Lolesio adding the conversion.
England’s midfield defence was being asked uncomfortable questions, especially by the fast-footed Marika Koroibete, and was not coming up with the required answers. Lolesio and Farrell exchanged further penalties but Jones had already seen enough to warrant a switch at scrum-half, introducing Jack van Poortvliet for a crestfallen Care.
Care had not been having his greatest game but he was far from alone. Instead it was his opposite number White who made the most costly error of the first 40 minutes, caught in possession after a Farrell penalty had struck a post. Suddenly presented with a prime attacking position the visitors awoke from their slumbers and put Freddie Steward, playing his 32nd game of a long season, over on the left for the first try scored by a starting English three-quarter in the series.
The stats showed England had missed 30% of their attempted tackles in the opening 40 minutes, the kind of figure to give any defence coach palpitations. And yet still they led, reflecting the mediocre nature of the half.
Happily from England’s perspective, their evening was about to improve substantially. Another Farrell penalty extended the lead to 14-10 before Lolesio’s costly fumble gave a gleeful Smith the chance to stretch his legs to the line.
At 21-10 it should have been game over but the Wallabies were finding a fresh lease of life. Two excellent tackles from Van Poortvliet and then Steward were required to keep out Samu Kerevi and Koroibete respectively, and it was no less than the home side deserved when Fainga’a barged over with 14 minutes left.
Once again, though, the golden knockout punch proved elusive, with Australia missing the guile of Quade Cooper and the heft of overseas-based locks such as Will Skelton or Rory Arnold. Kerevi and Koroibete have both underlined their proven class but overall the forwards have not frightened many horses.
England’s player of the series? Steward, already his country’s player of the year at home, has been consistently outstanding with Van Poortvliet and Ellis Genge not far behind. Farrell’s goal-kicking and Courtney Lawes’s calm captaincy have also been influential at certain times, particularly with so many other senior faces sidelined.
As for the Australian Rugby Union, it can only hope this series has been a sufficient spark to rekindle the game among home fans heading into the 2025 British & Irish Lions tour and the 2027 Rugby World Cup. Rugby’s profile has dipped significantly in these parts and a winning Wallabies side would help massively. This time around, though, it has been England’s month.