Australia’s Bernard Foley back to best and ready to beguile England again | Gerard Meagher

The Australia fly-half was below par for much of the year but is back in form and is set to be a key player on Saturday at Twickenham – where he has run rings round England before

Of all the enduring images from England’s 20-point thrashing by Australia at last year’s World Cup – and there were a fair few – perhaps Joe Launchbury’s misery when collecting a thoroughly undeserved man-of-the-match award best sums up the stark humiliation of it all.

There were numerous better performers that night, all wearing green and gold, and none more so than Bernard Foley, scorer of two tries – the first of which left Launchbury with a face full of grass - and 28 points in one of the most beguiling fly-half performances Twickenham has witnessed. And after he had been earmarked as the Wallabies’ weak link, no less.

Fourteen months, a 3-0 whitewash in England’s favour and an awful lot of talk have passed under the bridge since then. Indeed England, unrecognisable under Eddie Jones, seek a 14th win in a row but, as they have not tasted defeat since, Foley’s masterclass is relevant to Saturday’s match. Not least because 11 of England’s starting XV were on the receiving end, but also because, after a poor June series against England and an indifferent Rugby Championship, Foley is back in form.

“He probably wouldn’t have been that happy with the way that he performed against England, some of the matches against New Zealand, but he seems to have taken a step forward on this tour,” says Nick Farr-Jones, Australia’s World Cup-winning captain in 1991 and a member of the 1984 grand slam side.

“He didn’t go quite as well during the England series in Australia. Through their tactics they were able to shut him down a lot. We really struggled, despite having a lot of possession. But now his vision is great, his confidence is high, his speed and individual attacking skills are terrific but I think more importantly, he’s calling the shots out there, he’s calling the plays.”

Eddie Jones seems to agree. He has showed his disdain for the Wallabies’ scrum but has acknowledged Foley, who has shredded Wales and scored the crucial points against Scotland and France on this tour, ranks among the best three fly-halves in the world, the inference being Beauden Barrett and George Ford are the others.

The 27-24 loss to Ireland last Saturday means a first grand slam for Australia since Farr-Jones and co is not on the line but having been 17-0 down in Dublin, the Wallabies demonstrated the kind of attacking potency that blew Wales away and that England are yet to encounter this autumn.

Foley trains at Harrow School ahead of Saturday’s clash at Twickenham.
Foley trains at Harrow School ahead of Saturday’s clash at Twickenham. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Perhaps Foley has taken time to readjust his backline in the absence of Matt Giteau and he made five appearances at No12 in the Rugby Championship, which, all told, were mixed. But Reece Hodge’s fast start to his international career and Tevita Kuridrani’s form at outside-centre – he has scored in all four of Australia’s autumn Tests – have empowered the fly-half again and Farr-Jones believes Stephen Larkham, Australia’s backs coach and 1999 World Cup-winning No10, must take credit.

“For once I’ve seen Larkham’s hand on that backline,” he adds. “And Bernard Foley is really instrumental in creating those structures. If you look at some of the great Australian teams over the decades, one of the common denominators is that the No10 has been a terrific player that has been able to call the shots. We all know what Larkham’s qualities were when he wore the gold jersey and I can see a lot of that in the way that Foley is thinking about the game, structuring the game, mixing the game up.”

While he may not be as quick as Barrett, Foley’s sevens background makes him an obvious threat with ball in hand and his ability to play flat, to put his runners through gaps, is delightful to watch. His kicking is often questioned but when the stakes are highest he has a habit of delivering. Scotland can attest to that, while anyone who saw him kick the last-gasp winning penalty for Michael Cheika’s Waratahs in the 2014 Super Rugby final would have known better than to question “the Ice Man” at Twickenham last October.

Alofa Alofa, the Harlequins wing who was part of the Waratahs side in 2014, says: “I never thought he’d miss. He’s great under pressure. He was great for us throughout the season. He’s played sevens, he could attack the line as well as a passing game.

“It’s great to have a 10 who can attack like that. He was great all over the field. I rate him as one of the best. I hope he continues to play the way he is and becomes one of the all-time greats.”

If Larkham’s influence on Foley is clear, then Cheika’s is similarly apparent, having coached him at the Waratahs and given him the platform to shine on the international stage. But Farr-Jones does not believe the Australia coach is winning all his battles, not least with his counterpart Jones.

“Cheika has to become more mature when it comes to overreacting to little jibes,” he says. “I suspect there was a little bit of truth in what Steve Hansen said about Eddie getting the better of him. The incidents in Auckland, where Cheika focused on being portrayed as a clown, I think that was a silly overreaction by Michael.

“I’m sure Michael will mature as a coach, just as Eddie has matured significantly. I think [Eddie] was a dud coach when he was in Australia and now he’s become a very good coach. He was too prescriptive, he didn’t get the best out of his players. He sent them on with a robotic message and we played a very bland type of rugby that wasn’t creative and wasn’t typical Wallaby rugby. He’s acknowledged that he has become a far better coach than when he was down here coaching the Wallabies.”


Gerard Meagher

The GuardianTramp

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