England’s sweeping statement: from grand slam to whitewash to beach party | Eddie Butler

The adorably durable Vunipolas have been exceptional in this 3-0 clean sweep of Australia, and so has Chris Robshaw. England will be told by Eddie Jones they cannot rest on their laurels – but they have earned themselves a break

The tally of 84 points would seem to confirm Eddie Jones’s pre-match view that third Tests tend to be a little more open and a little more bountiful. Billy Vunipola missed a couple of tackles, as did Jack Nowell, which might be proof of a little less attention to brutal detail. But there was still a tough old feel to this game and there was very little of the carefree about it.

Tackles were missed because Israel Folau found more space, largely thanks to the return of Matt Toomua. The Australian back-line looked far more menacing and with the full-back feeding off the centre, England were always going to be stretched. It was Nowell’s misfortune to be the one who had Folau coming at him at a pace not seen in the series until now.

It wasn’t the only fresh problem for the tourists. Dan Cole, one of the bedrocks of the first two Tests – and much abused by the Australians (well, by the former Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer) for his technique at the scrummage – was penalised at an early scrum. Had Nigel Owens been reading the critiques of the noble Cole’s angles? Maybe he had and maybe he hadn’t. Having blown once against him, the referee next blew against James Slipper and then let the props get on with it until the 55th minute, when he awarded England a scrum penalty.

It meant the lead changed yet again in this wonderful see-saw of a game, but was the exception that proved the rule that this wasn’t a show ruined by a mess at the scrums. On the other side of the scrum Mako Vunipola completed his hat-trick of magnificence. Brother Billy has been the essential driver of the tank and the sweeper-up of little things that go astray, but Mako has more than played his part: basics first at the scrum; good close-quarter yards made; another huge tackle count.

The Vunipolas have expanded their repertoire from the impactful to the fully sustained. To see Billy limp off before the end was a surprise – they seem immune to damage, too. The adorably durable duo have been exceptional and Billy’s couple of missed tackles are easily forgiven, although England have had so few glitches that they were almost glaring at the time.

To pardon Billy V was apparently easier than allowing Teimana Harrison a little time to adjust to the No7 shirt reluctantly vacated by the injured James Haskell. Here was Harrison’s chance to show that he, too, could make the switch from 6 to 7. He had certainly gone well against Wales; could he now join the record-breaking party in Sydney?

Not for long. Australia, through Sean McMahon and Michael Hooper dominated the breakdown and the entire Wallaby pack counter-rucked with venom. With that clinical refusal to duck an issue, coach Eddie reeled in the stand-in No7 and sent on Courtney Lawes, with 6-and-a-bit Chris Robshaw going to the openside and Maro Itoje to 6. Dutiful as ever, Robshaw played his part in the restoration of order.

He even had a sniff of a little personal glory when Australia overthrew a lineout six metres from their own line, and the ball came his way. He drove a little high for the line and was held up. Seconds later, Billy Vunipola charged from a similar distance and was unstoppable and low. It wasn’t exactly a rebuke, but it certainly showed the erstwhile captain how it should be done.

That said, Robshaw has had a memorable series. After the travails of his time in charge, to go past 50 caps on a historic tour of Australia, an essential component of the back row that has risen to the considerable challenge, says a great deal about his strength of character. The question was raised about the threat to Robshaw at 6 from Harrison. The changes made in Sydney were an answer quietly – it’s the Robshaw manner – but forcefully delivered.

Australia played better in Sydney than in Brisbane or Melbourne, but the pack have lost their bite and Nick Phipps has had an untidy series at scrum-half. Perhaps the second is a direct result of the first, but to bring the best out of Bernard Foley and Israel Folau, the Wallabies need a slick service from their No9. They have always had fast, accurate passers at scrum-half – the legacy of Ken Catchpole – but Phipps has sprayed the ball all around Foley, or has simply looked confused by the options before him.

It is a credit to the work of the England pack and the nagging attentions of Ben Youngs, but Phipps has simply looked out of form and the berth looks exposed before the start of the Rugby Championship. Australia are historically adept at responding to a crisis, but to have issues at 9 is unsettling. Without flow and precision, the Wallabies are going to have a tough time in the weeks ahead.

As for England, they have earned themselves a few weeks of delicious, warm rest. They will be told that they cannot rest on their laurels, that this is a project barely started. But in truth, they have earned themselves a good break. To find a rhythm that allows for lying back and savouring the moment is as important as thumping out the tempo of the last eight matches, as taking their rugby from the zero of the World Cup to these exotic heights. Grand slam, whitewash … beach.


Eddie Butler

The GuardianTramp

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