England may have traveled to the other side of the world, but some known weaknesses have accompanied them. Worse than the end of their successful eight-game run against the Wallabies was the utter lack of excuses available and the way they let slip a game they should have won. This best-of-three series is far from over, but there’s English blood in the water now.
Anyway, this was an encouraging result from the perspective of Australia, who played 14-man for 46 minutes after their lock forward Darcy Swain was shown a red card for outplaying Jonny Hill. As they also lost Quade Cooper to injury pre-match and were forced to leave two more players in the opening 25 minutes, it was a characterful victory won in rare adversity.
Australia trailed 14-9 at the start of the last quarter, but two tries in seven minutes by Jordan Petaia and Folau Fainga’a changed the game. When bull Pete Samu added third in the 77th minute, the Wallabies were unattainable 30-14, only for debutants Henry Arundell and Jack van Poortvliet’s attempts to massage the final score. The way England physically wilted in the second half after Billy Vunipola’s precious sin-binning will annoy Eddie Jones as much as anything else.
It was a nightmare result for Jones all round. The more he tinkers with the car – a new captain, a rearranged side, several lieutenants – the less sweetly he seems to move. Something fundamentally doesn’t click, despite the efforts of his new skipper Courtney Lawes, Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward. Once again, England conceded crazy penalties at crucial moments and, unlike the 14-man Barbarians last month, lacked the acumen or dynamism to maximize their numerical advantage.
If it’s a fraction too early to write Jones’ squad completely off, they have now lost three tests in a row and are as far away as ever from the ‘best team ever’ the coach was aiming for a few years ago. There is still awkwardness where rhythm should be and Australia has now overtaken them in the world rankings. A 3-0 defeat here and Jones’ insistence that everything will be all right at next year’s World Cup will sound about as true as Nadine Dorries’ penchant for rugby league.
However, the credit must go to the resourceful, determined Australians. No one had anticipated Cooper’s eleven-hour withdrawal, who damaged a calf during the warm-up and had to be replaced by Noah Lolesio, while James O’Connor was dragged out of the business suite to sit on the couch. Of all the players, Wallaby coach Dave Rennie was the least willing to lose so close to kick-off that it was his experienced fly-half and playmaker.
Amazingly, however, the Wallabies reached the halftime level at 6-6, despite a string of luck that would have drained Monty Python’s ever-optimistic Black Knight. A horrific fall forced the premature departure of fullback Tom Banks with a broken arm and prop Allan Alaalatoa before following him through the tunnel after failing a head injury assessment.
Then came what everyone assumed would be the pivotal moment. Hill and Swain tangled up and after his hair was pulled, the drab Wallaby lock reacted by dropping his head on his opponent. Even though the player was seriously provoked, it was still folly and after Hill saw yellow, the 24-year-old Brumbies slot was inevitably shown red.
Wouldn’t England take full advantage? Instead, they conceded an unnecessary penalty just before the siren and Lolesio shot his second penalty to negate Owen Farrell’s two kicks from three attempts. Apart from a nice long pass from Tom Curry that nearly brought Joe Marchant into the right corner for an attempt after 20 minutes, England’s attacking play barely shone.
With Curry failing to return for the second half and another avoidable penalty awarded by Maro Itoje, giving Lolesio a chance to give Australia the lead, it was up to England to get a grip. In short they did, successive kicks into the corner eventually provided the opportunity for Genge to rush off the side and across.
However, if England thought the work was effectively done, they were wrong. Realizing that they had to take every opportunity, the Wallabies picked up the pace, giving the talented Petaia just enough time and space to master the ball. Lolesio’s superb conversion on the sidelines put the hosts back ahead and Vunipola’s yellow card in the 67th minute only added to red rose’s discomfort.
It took less than two minutes for Australia to take advantage. Now that the packs were level again, they had a chance to get their rolling maul going, and Fainga’a merrily rushed through to score just barely on the rise. The strong, energetic Samu then provided an equally crucial late impulse to render irrelevant the late, late efforts of the hugely promising Arundell, who left several defenders in his wake, and Van Poortvliet. The series isn’t finished yet, but this felt like an important first chapter.
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