Had things turned out differently, Ellis Genge and Taniela Tupou might have been lining up together in the same side when Australia and England took to the field in Brisbane. In 2014, Fe’ao Vunipola – father of Billy and Mako – had tried to persuade the 21-stone “Tongan Thor” to join the Premiership and, given he had not committed his international future at that stage, an England career would almost inevitably have followed.
As it was, England was too far from his family for Tupou, Australia was not and eight years later, Genge and Tupou were lining up on opposing sides for the first time in their careers. They talked a bit of trash in the buildup like all good heavyweights do – Tupou had said he wanted to smash England’s loosehead, Genge told him to “get in line” – before proceeding to demonstrate why this particular individual battle whetted the appetite above all others.
In the minutes before the match, their two outlooks could not have been more different. Tupou was bouncing around, running through his drills with a smile on his face, seemingly just happy to be back in the thick of it after an injury layoff since April. Genge, meanwhile, was slowly prowling.
There was a nervous energy to England in their warm-up – a precursor to their thunderous start – but Genge was strolling in slow motion. Genge was given a few words of last-minute encouragement by Richard Cockerill, the man who took him to Leicester, now his national forwards coach and someone well-versed in cajoling a performance out of a wounded pack.
By the time the players lined up for the anthems Genge was almost trance-like, but it took a shade more than 30 seconds for him to set the tone, taking a pass from Marcus Smith and rampaging into contact with such ferocity he dumped Michael Hooper on his backside. Genge has developed into such an integral part of this team that where he leads, others follow. Not many players sit the Australia captain down – “I’d like to avoid that again,” said Hooper – and in that moment, England laid down the gauntlet to the Wallabies.
James Haskell’s hit on David Pocock was a seminal moment six years ago and should England go on to win the series, Genge’s carry will be held in similar esteem. “[He] was possibly a bit annoyed with what Tupou said and wanted to make his mark on the game,” said Eddie Jones.
There followed a performance that, while not yet at the same level – far from it in fact – it at least gave a reminder as to why feared England packs of the past were described as “white orcs” such was their ferocity.
Five minutes in and Billy Vunipola, enjoying his best England performance for years and arguably the most influential since they were last here in 2016, went over for the opening try. Genge celebrated by whacking Hooper’s chest a few times – further proof of the confrontational edge England were bringing.
They were 10-0 ahead by the time Genge and Tupou locked horns at the first scrum where the referee, Andrew Brace, awarded a free-kick against the Australia tighthead – chalk that up as a mini-victory for Genge. Tupou then gave away a silly penalty for a no-arms clearout soon after. Genge moved further ahead on points by winning a penalty against him from the next scrum. In between the two set-pieces, Genge was penalised for how he pinned Nic White to the floor – as ever, living on the edge. Tupou was soon galvanised because suddenly he was at the heart of everything for the Wallabies, hitting rucks, making tackles, tipping passes on and thundering into contact.
Owen Farrell extended England’s advantage to 19-0 such was the superiority of their forwards but then Tupou struck with the try that gave Australia a foothold, taking a short ball from White and crashing over. Tupou has that rare gift, as Genge does, to send an emotional charge through the rest of his side and suddenly the Wallabies were in the game.
Almost immediately, England began to wobble and soon after the restart Tupou made his next telling intervention. Australia were battering away at the England line until Tupou found himself with the ball in his hands and Marcus Smith in his sights. Tupou blasted through and Samu Kerevi had the Wallabies scenting a turnaround.
It was Tupou’s final act before being replaced but he departed safe in the knowledge that he had dragged Australia back from the brink. Genge had also emptied the tank – he was replaced on 55 minutes, five after Tupou – and it feels just to award a split decision in their heavyweight contest, in the Englishman’s favour should push come to shove.
Cockerill had called it a contest that “sells tickets” and anyone who watched them closely would testify to that. The sport needs more characters like these two – that they backed up their pre-match comments is only to their credit.