Tourists face English side that dares to be different
Over … England's Charlie Sharples against Fiji. Photo: Getty Images
In the 33rd minute of last week's 54-12 win against Fiji, England's loose-head prop, Joe Marler, popped up as a link in England's attacking chain with a try begging and tossed the ball into touch.
Thirteen minutes later tight-head Dan Cole found himself confronted by three relative strangers: a proximate try line, options to the outside and the ball. Choosing the direct route he put his head down and charged into the blind alley, only to be held over the line.
This is where the Wallabies find England are at the moment: admirably in pursuit of a complete game that requires their tight forwards to distribute as well as destroy, but only in the early stages of that journey. It will not always be smooth sailing.
That England are even contemplating a more expansive approach might come as some surprise, but the level of misunderstanding between the hemispheres show no signs of abating. In the south there is the temptation to perpetually see English rugby as 16 fat men having a pushing contest in Midlands mud while the Oxbridge-educated backs go through their kicking routines, even though the likes of Harlequins and Gloucester can play stuff that is pleasing to the eye, especially in drier conditions.
Similarly, Super Rugby is sneered at as a touch competition but drop a European side into Brisbane (on a good day), anywhere in New Zealand, or Durban and the packs would spend most of the day being blasted out of the breakdown zone. But it's best not to get too precious about it, even when these misconceptions are mined by some or even perpetuated - a bit of jousting, in the right spirit, is part of the fun.
England's attempt to play with more craft did not start last weekend - the intent was obvious from their narrowly failed pursuit of New Zealand's Wayne Smith earlier this year - but it certainly showed they were serious about it. Second-rower Geoff Parling showed soft hands to deliver short passes to change the point of attack and his locking partner Tom Palmer's first instinct in the tackle was often to look for a quick recycle. Meanwhile, No.8 Thomas Waldrom - who looks a little leaner than the version Australian fans will remember from his Super Rugby days - was always looking for an offload in contact and Manu Tuilagi likewise. Yes, it was against weaker opposition but England's methodical coach, Stuart Lancaster, is presumably using every minute of every Test as a building block for the 2015 World Cup in his backyard.
And if Wallabies fans are looking for a specific pattern of play to be wary of, it might be this: From the lineout England like to use their captain, Chris Robshaw - a tall openside by Australian standards - at the tail, then quick ball from No.9 Danny Care into midfield for Brad Barritt or Tuilagi in the first phase. Then into the mitts - again, with pace - of five-eighth Toby Flood with the key option - fullback Alex Goode - outside him. If it gets to Goode then alarm bells should be ringing. The Saracen is an able ball-player as well as a runner, England's second distributor to make up for the lack of subtlety in the midfield, and he has a couple of sharp finishers with him in the back three. Chris Ashton is the better known, but the Gloucester man Charlie Sharples looks like trouble. He has proper, eye-catching pace, directness and can work congested conditions. Australia's right flank will have to be on its guard.
Of course, England fans will forgive Cole and Marler for not satisfying all the requirements of the new-age prop if they fulfil a more traditional role: the demolition of an Australian scrum that is so universally anticipated, so expected, that English attempts to talk up a Wallabies backlash this week were doomed to failure. Mounting an Australian defence of the set-piece after Paris is a fool's errand although one thing must be remembered: rugby is such a consistently contrary game that it would be typical of it not to make the scrum the defining act of the contest.
So what, then, for Australian hopes? Better than the $3.40 trading price, in part because the gap between where England want to be (the All Blacks in periods of their game against Scotland) and where they've come from is so large. Two statistics show the distance Lancaster has to take them. Of all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams this year so far, England still kick the most frequently, on average every 33 seconds, and have the fewest amount of offloads a game, 3.9. For all their good intentions, England are a work in progress, and Australia knows better than most what vulnerability that wretched tag brings.
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