After a team win a trophy, or even a particularly significant match, attentions quickly turn to the more daunting challenges that are often waiting next in line. That is certainly the case for England. Despite seeming to banish those 2015 World Cup demons with six impressive straight wins including a Six Nations Grand Slam under the post-Lancaster regime, they are about to experience the real litmus test of their progress since last autumn. Facing up against Australia is always a daunting prospect – just think back to how they outplayed England when knocking them out of the World Cup. Doing so on their home turf on tour doubly so. Yet a tour Down Under is exactly what they are about to embark on. Coming out on top after a three Test series in the Wallabies’ own back yard would be an immensely impressive achievement and would confirm this current crop as potential future World Cup winners in Japan. It will be the biggest hurdle this side will have faced since the World Cup.
However, it is somewhat easier said than done. It may be the scene of England’s finest ever moment when they lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003, ironically at the expense of an Eddie Jones coached Australia, but in total they have won only 3 of the 17 Tests they’ve played against Australia in their Southern Hemisphere home. Hence the scale of the task facing them in the matches in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. In 2004 one score between the two sides during a similar tour was 51-15. Not to the World Cup holders. To Australia. In the last tour Down Under six years ago, England won only once. Their record in Australia is not worth shouting about.
This Wallaby side have risen to second in the world under the expert stewardship of Michael Cheika. They are a team in form driven on by real stars of the game such as David Pocock, Bernard Foley, Israel Folau and Michael Hooper. Their efforts last autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, where they only fell at the finish line to the unstoppable All Blacks, was the finest demonstration yet of the kind of force they have become. The tough atmosphere that is bound to be created in impressive stands such as Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium will only add to the challenge presented by such a talented and confident side.
If England are to win this series they will need to win a number of key areas, especially the breakdown, an area that Jones has been focusing a great deal on. Unfortunately it is a facet of the game that Australia are currently immense at, with arguably the two best breakdown specialists in the game, Pocock and Hooper. If England are to have opportunities to vary their game, gain momentum through phases and get their runners sufficiently involved then at least equalling their opponents in this particular forward battle is crucial.
Domestically, Saracens have proven how important it is to have a solid defence. It therefore can only be a good thing that a number of those double-winners are within England’s ranks. They need to ensure that they give Australia as little opportunity to get runners at them as possible and defend collectively and get quickly back into shape to ensure a gap is quickly plugged if a tackle is missed. Often the road to success is paved by getting the simple, smaller things right. Defensive solidity and concentration is a must.
Eddie Jones has made clear that he wants this team to be able to adapt their style instinctively to respond to different environments and teams. They know that Australia, in their typically Southern Hemisphere style, will move the ball quickly and avoid contact and rucks as much as possible. Yet to really compete and succeed they will need to face up to and overcome the physicality that this Australian outfit also bring so effectively to their game. To do this, certain individuals need to flourish. Big carriers such as Billy Vunipola need to regularly get the ball over the gain line to create momentum and open up space – if England are gradually forced backwards turnovers or penalties against them become increasingly likely. If they are able to keep moving forwards they have threats such as Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell who could inflict real damage.
Despite the high level of performance in the friendly win over Wales, England’s kicking out of hand and off the tee was woeful. Yes George Ford was having an off day but even a slight drop in standards in this series from Ford or Farrell, or indeed Brown or Goode at full back, could be disastrous. Obviously chances to add points to the board need to be taken from penalty and conversion opportunities but effective general tactical kicking out of hand could be key. It will allow pressure to be relieved when defending from deep inside their on 22 and allow for important territorial gains, whilst well-timed and intelligent kick-and-chasing will reduce Australia’s capacity to run at them in the manner they will want to.
Finally, whilst it is often the exciting back play that can stick in the memory, England won’t get close to their Australian hosts if they do not have a solid set piece. A solid scrum will give much needed balance and additional options – the chance to plough through the middle with the forwards or work the ball out wide quickly via the backs. This pack have looked imposing at the line-out recently, helped no end by the accurate throwing of Captain Dylan Hartley. Retaining possession and stealing opponents’ ball is an area where they perhaps have the upper hand, with Maro Itoje and George Kruis a formidable pairing. It is an area where the pressure can be ratcheted up on Australia.
English rugby has been immersed by a great deal of timely success in 2016. The international team has been heaped with praise after the Six Nations. Yet true judgement of how far they have really come under Eddie Jones can be only made after this Australian tour. Over to you England...
To view the rugby union gap year programmes run by Sport Lived in Australia, click here.