After all the talk of key steps towards (you know) 2015 or psychological plusses or markers, England get their win. And Geech puts on record the blandly positivist view – that Lancaster should and would be pleased with how they came through. Fair enough. Except that other than the admittedly reasonably significant fact of the scoreline, very little suggested a further gearing up towards any realistic or legitimate challenge for the World Cup on home soil. In fact much of it felt like a reverse. England were ordinary; disjointed, lacking in dynamism and organisation, unimaginative.
In a relatively poor game in which the opposition’s finest asset – Genia – was barely visible, Australia were still able to coast for the first hour. Only in the final period did England in any sense test the Wallabies defence through fleetness of foot, phases, angles or width. Even then it was hardly fluent and only via a couple of contentious decisions did the critical points come. The whites were lucky and no more than about three of them could feel satisfied with their own contribution. Lancaster would surely be more concerned than pleased.
If that’s a downer then I feel it too. I anticipated the occasion – the series! – in my usual juvenile froth, with the vinnytwinkle on fast-fibre alert. I was, believe me, more than ready to leap off me barstool. I’ve binned most of that in favour of a column on… Match One.
England then – wisely in my view – booked a slot against Australia first up. Certainly it made sense to schedule in at least one All Black warm-up game – and yes, I know that may offend… but surely there is some truth in that wicked suggestion? – Oz being pretty fine but a whole lot more beatable than the AB’S.
Pre-match I expressed concerns about the balance of the pack and the load on youngish/newish partnerships at halfback and centre particularly. I waffled on about Dickson’s lack of presence and that hunch I had that the forwards simply might not achieve – did not feel like a unit. (True I did also admit to worries about Vunipola at eight but he proved a real success – if a semi-detached one.) Some of this I had right.
Dickson was picked a) on form b) to get the ball out and about sharpish. He did that okay but between him and the oddly out of sorts Farrell there was little or no genuine urgency; passes manifestly did not fizz; breaks were rarely engineered, much less inspired. They were ordinary; even Farrell’s goal-kicking was a let-down, as he found a groove three feet west of the posts. To his credit, the stand-off stood and fought his way to more meaningful contributions late in the game – long after he might reasonably have been withdrawn, in fact. Dickson, as previously for England, failed to make a persuasive argument for his retention but he is likely to get a further opportunity, I suspect. Too many changes and all that. The question remains; he can play but can he fire things up at international level?
At centre Tomkins announced himself with a technically ragged but telling early tackle on Folau, before slightly disappearing into the muddle of midfield. Within this zone of disquieting under-achievement we might I imagine still find a forlornly felled Twelvetrees – was it simply nerves? – sucking his thumb beneath a security blanket name of er… Blankey. If both the half-backs and centres are kindof out of sorts, it simply ain’t possible to play, right?
Rarely have I seen so many plop-passes or flop-passes or stationary receivers – all signs that people don’t feel comfortable, don’t want the responsibility of leading or making something happen themselves. Having hoped for some flair and some brightness from form players, we got mainly a bit of A Flap. Meaning that in a game that England won and which Australians will say they stole, few in white lived up to their billing.
Mike Brown was the notable exception. He was almost faultless, projecting forth beyond that typical coolness into an elsewhere rarely-troubled land of creativity, via leggy but balanced surges into space. Only he and possibly Vunipola B looked remotely like disturbing the Wallabies’ calm. Australia may bawl at him all it wants but the full-back can hardly be blamed for his skipper’s dodgy try – scored painfully soon after Brown stood clearly in touch whilst gathering a punt deep in his own territory. And overall, following superb presence and quality under the high ball from the kick-off, England’s guardian was a shoe-in for the home side’s Man of The Match, whilst further cementing his place in the side. That he will justifiably keep the gifted and arguably more elusive Foden out speaks volumes for the incumbent and releases (or confines?) a proper talent to the bench.
A word on the captain. Robshaw apparently has his critics; but once again in a match where his side were underperforming around him, he led. This is not to say he was as outstanding as he often has been… but he was present and he played with intelligence and commitment. I rate him for his consistency and his knack for an important intervention – like that snaffled try, or, more often, the key bridging or protection of the ball come the ruck. Often when something good gets done by an England forward, it’s by him.
Lawes I wonder about. Clearly a tremendous athlete and a force of nature at times, I simply don’t see it happening for England. More a hunch than an observation perhaps but he seems to me too hot/too cold. In this encounter he took about an hour to get going and I sense this may be because he daren’t free himself up for fear of infringement. His natural mode would appear to be rampage rather than cruise control; I may be wrong but this suggests to me that he has both some significant maturing to do to (for example) play a central role in line-out calls and that edginess is essential to his game. Reined in, he loses a lump of his value. (Line-outs, by the way were a shambles.) Courtenay could be a world-beater but can he stay in the team while we wait?
I’ve said the Aussies had every right to be aggrieved at the Brown/Robshaw ‘incident’. Less clear perhaps was the other major beef – Hartley’s blocking of their defender as Farrell darted in to score. Certainly the Saints hooker denied passage to the tackler but some have said he would never have gathered in the England 10 and that therefore it was fairly judged. Personally, in the moment, it seemed a home decision – one swayed by a Twickenham crowd eventually finding some hope out there in the action – but one that will add further to the list of historic grievances between these deliciously, sometimes brutally keen rivals. Oh… and it decided the match.
In short, can I please be both underwhelmed (by England) and remain jig-ready, then? With multifarious and multicoloured flyers and dancers yet to engage, the juices will be flowing yet.