Rugby Preview: Australia vs. England, Second Test

James MortimerAnalyst IJune 15, 2010

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 12:  Salesi Ma'afu (L) of the Australian Wallabies is shown the yellow card by referee Nigel Owens during the Cook Cup Test match between the Australian Wallabies and England at the Subiaco Oval on June 12, 2010 in Perth, Australia.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
David Rogers/Getty Images

The wonder of a second test match is that the hosting Australians and visiting English know exactly what to expect from each other.

Paradoxically, the losing team from Perth may actually have the edge.  That is if they've learned any lessons from a painful defeat.

The Wallabies, with all their youthful exuberance, are playing a game that is wonderful for its sheer viewing pleasure. And while it is easier said than done, an all-out attacking strategy could be shut down, were it not for the maestro pulling the strings for the green and gold machine.

Deans has introduced new blood and encourages the overused expression of “playing what is in front of you.”

But the real menace in this Australian team is that their structured play, epitomised by lovely angles, support on attack, and a coordinated defence.

The English side showed, as they did under Johnson, that they have the physical might to dominate the Wallabies. And with more facets, the foundation to build progress and record—as their senior players lament—that elusive big scalp is there.

If one created a rugby team from scratch, and gave them a scrum of the power that has been revealed by England so far in Australia, the opportunities should be endless.

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What would be frustrating for Martin Johnson and his men would not be so much that their set piece dominance should have resulted in a healthy win. But that there was not even the associated links that one connects with a physical forward pack.

The Wallabies, via a resurgent Luke Burgess, found plenty of freedom around the edge of the ruck, an area where no team would be given any change when Martin Johnson and his “white orcs on steroids” ruled the world.

Even when the Australians recycled possession, there was no menace or hunger in the counter ruck, something a big physical forward unit should be revelling in.

Equally rumbling English forwards attacking off first phase should have broken the advantage line to enable some semblance of a pressure sustained attack.

But, all too often, they were picked off by enthusiastic Wallaby hit men.

England seems to resemble the side that carried all before them when Johnson and Clive Woodward engineered an unbeatable hegemony. Yet, by the same token, it seems worlds apart, despite being run by the same man who captained them to such heights.

England will not click their fingers and suddenly wield a dazzling backline attack. For this test at least, they must surely plot their success via their pack. Trying to engage the Wallabies in a running game will result in an embarrassing loss.

This is where it could be dangerous for Australia in a development stage.

They are ahead of the curve in regards of where they want to be.  And, unlike England, they seem to have a process in place in terms of their rugby maturity.

However, notwithstanding all the wonders of their cheeky backline attack, and despite the fact that they continue to be recognized under Dean's as arguably the most intelligent rugby side in world rugby (and rightly so), all the wiles in the world will not always cover up a lack of heavy artillery up front.

Their forward pack seems to operate solely to support their attacking three quarter division. And here they have painted a huge target on their backs if a side is willing to take up the challenge of shutting them down via trench warfare.

One may marvel at the Wallabies' style, but recent history has proven that such an all out attack, with an apparent disregard for the tenets of rugby via forward play and set piece dominance, can come horribly unstuck.

The most obvious example would hail back to 2003, when the All Blacks travelled to Pretoria and Sydney to open that year’s Tri Nations with 52-16 and 50-21 triumphs over their old foes.  The New Zealand side used a blitzkrieg style offensive from a sparkling squadron of backs.

However, in return games, despite losing, the Springboks and Wallabies discovered how to overcome such a formula. In that year’s World Cup semifinal, the Australians simply gave New Zealand no ball and swamped the ruck to win 22-10,  crashing them out of the World Cup.

The assistant coach of the All Blacks, and backline mentor that day, was Robbie Deans. One wonders, despite his obvious credentials, if he is repeating history with a different test side.

England has been on a curious road now. They still seem unable to settle on a desired match day approach. But for all the criticism of their lack of adventure, perhaps their best path lies in a switch back to forward orientated and uncompromising rugby.

Under Johnson, Brian Ashton, and Andy Robinson, the Red Rose has taken more steps backwards than forwards, en-route to no Six Nations titles, only four Tri Nations scalps since 2004, and a less than acceptable 29 wins from 66 matches.

It is time for England to decide once and for all the direction they need to take.

The Wallabies have.

While there are areas that a Springboks or All Blacks team could capitalise on, if Deans is able to iron out the kinks, and buttress his side’s forward play, the Wallabies could become the most dangerous side in test rugby.

But with delicious irony, an English victory in Sydney, which they are well capable of achieving, could suddenly mean Johnson is on the right track, and send Deans back to the drawing board.

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