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ENGLAND CHARIOT TRUNDLES OVER WALTZING WALLABIES

The crowd were in fine voice at Twickenham on Saturday and Swing Low Sweet Chariot would have taken off the roof if there was one.  I was so fortunate to be there as a fan and what an atmosphere there was throughout the game. I truly think our sport at international level is the best in the world and the Home Nations’ fans the noisiest, most passionate and good humoured of the lot!

Australia v England is a fierce old rivalry. Like the best of families, the Aussies see us as the solid, and boring older brother. As the quicker, more agile little brother they want to always get one over us. Sport in Australia is seen as a symbol of the national character and there is so much store placed in being successful. That desire can of course spiral out of control leading to the shenanigans we saw on the cricket field - the Baggy Greens failing to see where the line was and stepping right over it.

 

It is because of that intense rivalry, whether it is the Ashes or a rugby World Cup final, that it is sad to see Australian rugby union in such a poor place now. Despite the tiny player base and rugby union sitting way below AFL, NRL and cricket the Wallabies have always been magnificently competitive with two World Cups to their name and a further two final appearances. That is some track record.

 

England has been involved in some epics with them not least the 2003 final where they took us so close. It was, therefore, a real shame that they were the underdogs going into the match on Saturday and even with a level score at half time you just could not see past an England victory. The talent is there as you can see with the superb Israel Folau waltzing through the England defence- but it looks a totally shambolic off field outfit. Discipline issues seem to surface within the Australia camp with as much regularity as a Farrell ‘no arms’ tackle debate (J). Indeed, Australia lost two key players at the weekend due to problems in adhering to team rules which is the very definition of aiming at your foot with a pistol.  My hope is that come Japan 2019 this team will be licked back into shape and even have found themselves a few beastly forwards to bulk up the pack. Most of their world class talent is in the backs and they should be persuading the likes of the man mountain Will Skelton to pack his bags and get on a Quantas flight asap.

 

The fact Australia were not at their best does not distract one iota from a very fine England performance. The pack looked nicely balanced for a change with a back row that was quick and powerful and shared out the duties. One guy who you just must be in awe of is Maro Itoje. I kept an eye on him and what stood out was his unbelievable workrate. As someone used to working in tight spaces and doing lots of the less pretty bits of the game, I can really appreciate what this man does on the pitch. He has made over these Autumn Internationals a staggering 149 ruck clear-outs which is more than any other Tier 1 player.  His speed to the breakdown - so often he arrives first - makes such a difference and meant on Saturday England were not giving away so many holdings on penalties or being turned over. Clearing out rucks never makes the highlight reels but is so fundamental and the fact Maro does so many yet still has a high tackle rate is another sign we have a very special player here.

 

Encouraging too was to see the baby rhino Kyle Sinckler having a gallop around the pitch boshing his way over the gain line - he has surely played himself onto the plane to Japan. I would not be in too much of a hurry to forget Dan Cole, however, as to me the combination of the two players could be the perfect solution. Dan is such a fine scrummager and has been improving his loose play so – my choice – he is back in the squad with Kyle getting at least 30 minutes off the bench.

 

The back line is starting to look like the one Eddie Jones has always wanted all along. Big powerful backs who can take the ball up mixed in with some ball players. It is why I would want to see Elliot Daly kept at full back because if we go back to Mike Brown, we lose a ball player that we could not afford if we put a big running back in the centres. Daly seemed to struggle to get high enough when jumping for the ball which is a bit of a worry but it could just be technique and lack of confidence which hopefully can be sorted out.

 

The wonder kid Joe Cokanasinga caused havoc on the wing and is of course a brilliant weapon to have. But this World Cup may be a little soon for him as I would think the Test experience of May, Nowell, Ashton and Daly covers the wing position pretty much and also gives you crucial cover for centre and full back.

 

The Danny Cipriani debate will carry on for a while, but I think the only chance for him will be an injury to one of the fly halves. Issue for me in having George Ford as the backup 10 on the bench is, he only covers one position whereas Danny could also cover 15. However, as much as I am a Danny fan I also believe his style of play is different and more based on him playing what he sees rather than to a plan. Ford and Farrell are so comfortable with each other, and the England game plan, that they click seamlessly into place. Ford is also wonderfully skilful with the softest of hands and his distribution skills are sublime. So, Eddie Jones has some tough calls here where he must weigh up the maverick skills of an outstanding talent like Cipriani who could come off the bench and win you a World Cup against the pragmatic needs of the team over the whole of the tournament.

 

Forward wind and the Six Nations are our next chance to judge just how solid the wheels on the English chariot are. England’s first match is up against the magnificent high-flying Ireland.  In Dublin. That, as they say in every player interview, is ‘a real challenge’. With the cavalry riding over the horizons and no more injuries to key players England could however be in pretty good shape. Add Mako and Billy Vunipola, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Dan Cole, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph into the squad and you will be looking at a very strong, powerful and experienced 23.  Ireland quite rightly will be favourites but I see no reason at all to think England could not win there.

 

The good news story overall from the end of these autumn tests is of course the success of the Northern Hemisphere teams. For so long the top of World Rugby has been dominated by Southern hemisphere teams and now thanks to Ireland we have totally mixed that up with the Irish now one of the favourites for the RWC19.  England will also be in with a chance and Wales (whisper it quietly) are building perfectly so it is not inconceivable that we have for the first time ever an all Northern Hemisphere World Cup final. Now wouldn’t that be grand

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