English rugby is alive and well
June 19, 2010
The smile returned to the face of English rugby in Sydney on Saturday night with victory over the Wallabies © Getty Images
"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." - Mark Twain
Martin Johnson's England silenced their critics and sounded a warning to their rivals with a narrow victory over Australia that restored faith in a team that was seemingly going nowhere just seven days ago. And just like the famous American author quoted above - the England boss will delight in rubbishing reports of his side's demise.
The victory, only their third ever success on Australian soil, was built on a refreshingly energised performance not just dusted with attacking flair but brimming with enterprise. The promise of Paris, where England had offered a glimmer of hope during a narrow defeat to France in the Six Nations, became the substance of Sydney.
Gone was the power-packed but dull England that were so painfully one-dimensional in defeat to the Wallabies in Perth last weekend and on so many occasions during Johnson's tenure. Instead we were treated to an England side seemingly liberated and hungry to please. Once again there was the forward pressure and physicality that caused Australia so many problems last time out but this time it was complimented by a sharper defensive performance and more importantly the kind of attacking endeavour that has been sorely missing for so long. There were still mistakes and those fans starved of something to cheer will this time rejoice at the fact that there is more to come rather than bemoan their side's shortcomings.
Johnson, so often singled out for a lack of coaching wisdom, must be praised for handing lock Courtney Lawes and scrum-half Ben Youngs their first Test starts. They rewarded the faith shown in them with standout performances, Youngs in particular delivering the kind of impressive display that graced the Premiership last season. The 20-year-old bagged a superb try and along with the 21-year-old Lawes, who added bite and drive at the gain line, helped England throw off the shackles and find what has been an elusive dynamism that caused Australia concern throughout.
England walked onto the field ahead of the game but there was nothing pedestrian about their performance - fizzing from the off and a world away from their most recent lacklustre display. Lending weight to their cause was flanker Tom Croft who was at his imperious best and his steal in the closing moments to snuff out Australia's hopes summed up England's new-found hunger. However, Croft was not alone in raising his game and was ably supported by all of his team-mates. No.8 Nick Easter was back to something like his best after an early wobble while fullback Ben Foden and centre Shontayne Hape also stepped up. Fly-half Toby Flood shrugged off those doubters who suggested he should make way for Jonny Wilkinson with an assured display while hooker Steve Thompson and prop Dan Cole were breathing fire at the coal face.
The fact that Australia also played their part in an enthralling contest makes the victory all the more important for England as they build towards the World Cup next year. Defeat is a harsh setback for coach Robbie Deans and his side who were flat by their high standards. Matt Giteau brought yet another dimension to the Wallabies' armoury in open play but he suffered an off-day with the boot and was crucially wide with the simplest of penalty attempts that could have won his side the game. It was a mistake you would expect from a novice - not someone as experienced as Giteau but he does have previous.
But Giteau's kicking woes were only part of the problem with defensive lapses costing them dear. Youngs and England wing Chris Ashton were allowed to ghost through for tries far too easily. Australia's cutting edge was again a joy to behold with Giteau and O'Connor looking lively but fly-half Quade Cooper suffered a quiet, ineffective game and was unable to stamp his authority on proceedings. And while the likes of flanker David Pocock and lock Nathan Sharpe fronted up well enough they lacked the intensity to match a fired up England. The latest performance from the front row only served as a reminder of the nature of their current injury crisis. They have an immediate opportunity to bounce back from this result with the visit of Ireland next weekend and such is the talent in their ranks do not be surprised if they respond to this wake-up call by extending Ireland's current nightmare of a tour.
Make no mistake - this is a fantastic day for England and will no doubt serve as a turning point in the regime of Johnson. A tour that was in danger of imploding will now be judged a success no matter the result in their final tour outing against New Zealand Maori in midweek. A win in the southern hemisphere is priceless - no matter the timing of it but a year out from a World Cup it takes on added significance. This rare success will galvanise an England side that has been hammered of late and offer a mental boost that will serve them well in the months to come as they look to underline the fact that they can mix it with the world's best - and on their own patch to boot.
A hurdle that simply had to be crossed if England were to make a run at a third consecutive World Cup Final has been crossed but many more stand in their way before that dream becomes a reality.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter