England may have traveled to the other side of the world but some familiar frailties have accompanied them. Even more galling than the end of their successful eight-game streak against the Wallabies was the absolute lack of available excuses and the way they let slip a contest they really should have won. This best-of-three series is far from over but there is now English blood in the water.
By any measure this was an encouraging outcome from Australia’s perspective, who played with 14 men for 46 minutes after their lock forward Darcy Swain was shown a red card for butting Jonny Hill. Given they also lost Quade Cooper to injury before the game and saw another two players forced off inside the first 25 minutes, it was a character-laden victory forged in rare adversity.
Australia had been 14-9 down at the start of the last quarter but two tries in seven minutes from Jordan Petaia and Folau Fainga’a transformed the contest. When the bullocking Pete Samu added a third in the 77th minute the Wallabies were uncatchable at 30-14, only for tries from debutants Henry Arundell and Jack van Poortvliet to massage the final scoreline. The manner in which England wilted physically in the second half following the costly sin-binning of Billy Vunipola will niggle away at Eddie Jones as much as anything else.
It was a nightmare result for Jones all round. The more he tinkers with the chariot – a new captain, a reshuffled side, different lieutenants – the less sweetly it seems to move. Something fundamental is not clicking, despite the best efforts of his new skipper Courtney Lawes, Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward. Once again England gave away daft penalties at crucial moments and, as against the 14-man Barbarians last month, did not have the wit or dynamism to maximize their numerical advantage.
If it is fractionally too early to write Jones’s squad off completely they have now lost three Tests in a row and remain as far away as ever from the ‘greatest team ever’ that the coach was targeting a couple of years ago. There continues to be clunkiness where there should be rhythm and Australia have now overtaken them in the world rankings. A 3-0 series defeat here and Jones’s insistence that all will be fine at next year’s World Cup will start to ring about as true as Nadine Dorries’s fondness for rugby league.
Credit, though, should go to the resourceful, resolute Australians. No one had factored in the 11th-hour withdrawal of Cooper, who damaged a calf in the warm-up and had to replaced by Noah Lolesio, with James O’Connor dragged out of the corporate suite to sit on the bench. Of all the players the Wallaby coach Dave Rennie would least have wanted to lose so close to kick off it was his experienced fly-half and playmaker.
Staggeringly, though, the Wallabies reached half-time level at 6-6 despite a run of luck that would have deflated Monty Python’s ever-optimistic Black Knight. A horrible fall forced the premature departure of full-back Tom Banks with a broken arm and prop Allan Alaalatoa then followed him down the tunnel after failing a head injury assessment.
Then came what everyone assumed would be the pivotal moment. Hill and Swain tangled and, having had his hair pulled, the livid Wallaby lock responded by dropping his head on his opponent. Although the player had been seriously provoked it was still silly and, after Hill had seen yellow, the 24-year-old Brumbies lock was inevitably shown red.
Surely England would take full advantage? Instead they conceded a needless penalty just before the siren and Lolesio slotted his second penalty to cancel out Owen Farrell’s two kicks from three attempts. Aside from a lovely long pass by Tom Curry which almost put Joe Marchant over in the right corner for a try in the 20th minute, England’s attacking game barely flickered.
With Curry not returning for the second half and another avoidable penalty, conceded by Maro Itoje, giving Lolesio the chance to put Australia ahead the onus was on England to get a grip. Briefly they did so, successive kicks to the corner finally setting up the opportunity for Genge to rampage off the side and over.
If England thought the job was effectively done, though, they were sorely mistaken. Recognizing they had to maximize every opportunity, the Wallabies upped the tempo and slick passing by the backs gave the talented Petaia just enough time and space to get the ball down. Lolesio’s splendid touchline conversion put the hosts ahead again and Vunipola’s 67th minute yellow card intensified red rose discomfort.
It took less than two minutes for Australia to take advantage. With pack numbers now equal again they had a chance to get their rolling maul going and Fainga’a gleefully barged through to score having only just come on. The strong, energetic Samu then supplied similarly crucial late impetus to render irrelevant the late, late efforts from the hugely promising Arundell, who left several defenders sprawled in his wake down the left, and Van Poortvliet. The series is not done yet but this felt like a significant first chapter.