Saturday 18 November 2017

England fail to deliver


Richard Williams

In their absurd new plum-coloured kit, England looked nothing more than a bunch of damsons in distress for long periods of a match against depleted opposition.

On a day when Stuart Lancaster's men needed to show signs of progress under a coaching regime that has now been in charge for nine months, they were put firmly in their place by an Australia side that was sharper, slicker and stronger.

England had done virtually nothing worth mentioning until the video referee came to their aid a couple of minutes before the interval, deciding that Manu Tuilagi had been in control of the ball and exerted downward pressure by the left-hand corner flag despite considerable evidence to the contrary. That stroke of good fortune enabled them to take a 14-11 lead into the half-time break but few among the crowd of 81,361 could have failed to note that the Wallabies had looked by far the livelier of the two sides.

The ghastly new strip was not the only thing the RFU got wrong yesterday. After the two national anthems had been murdered by an ensemble called the Voice, a solo singer named Lloyd Wade came on at half-time to perform the soul classic Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now. "The quality of entertainment just gets better and better," the announcer crowed, with no justification at that point, although a spectator close to the press seats had a good point when he praised the quality of Twickenham's new pitch, which would have done credit to the Emirates.

This was billed as the match in which Chris Ashton would return to the form he showed in the Cook Cup two years ago, when his swallow dive across the tryline, following a gallop covering the length of the Twickenham pitch, announced the arrival of a new England hero with the potential to follow in the line established by David Duckham, Rory Underwood and Jason Robinson.

The following calendar year featured 12 tries in 11 matches for England (including four against Italy), an inelegant episode during the World Cup in New Zealand – which hardly made him an exception in Martin Johnson's squad – and an acrimonious parting of the ways with Northampton, followed by a lucrative move to Saracens and a series of suspensions that kept him out of action in the first of England's autumn internationals, the one that ended in a thoroughly misleading scoreline.

Ashton was prominent in many newspapers yesterday, as well as on the cover of the match programme, where he was acting as a salesman for the new strip. But in the gloom of a very Novemberish afternoon, the former Wigan star's fluorescent orange boots were just about the only notable feature of his presence on the pitch until he came on a characteristic inside burst in the 20th minute.

The move was continued by Toby Flood and Andy Goode and led to the penalty with which Flood restored England's lead at 6-3. He was virtually invisible as Australia moved into the lead, thoroughly overshadowed by his opposite number. Nick Cummins, a 25-year-old from New South Wales, made his Test debut last month, but the long-shanked, mop-topped wing showed the kind of initiative and appetite that England's seemed reluctant to display.

His first dash led to the drop-goal with which the outstanding Berrick Barnes levelled Flood's opening penalty, and five minutes later another solo effort left Tom Youngs flailing at thin air and was stopped only by Charlie Sharples's intervention.

And he was there in the 35th minute to accept Nick Phipps's scoring pass after the Wallaby scrum-half had fielded a poor kick ahead by Danny Care before eluding the attentions of Sharples and Tom Palmer. England only came awake with the introduction of Joe Launchbury in place of Palmer in the 54th minute. Launchbury's first touch saw him leap to field a high kick with such panache and authority that it seemed to galvanise the whole team, who spent the next five minutes laying siege to the visitors' line and should have scored when Tom Waldrom's hand slipped off the ball as the No 8 tried to touch down.

The home side grabbed the initiative at that point, forcing the Wallabies to show their defensive mettle, with Kurtley Beale kicking them clear of several unpromising positions. But although the home side manufactured further periods of pressure, each one came to grief on an elementary error. Decisions to kick for touch by Flood and to take a quick tapped penalty by Ben Youngs, Care's replacement, meant that kickable points went begging, although it would be unfair to overlook the desire to go for the win rather than the draw that would have salvaged their pride.

The new coach talks a great deal about "journeys", and perhaps this was a stage on the route to fulfilment. But there was to be no proof on this day of his belief that if you get the process right, the scoreline will take care of itself. And so Ashton's noisily heralded return ended in disappointment as he and his team-mates trooped from the field to the sounds of disappointment. He had manoeuvred himself into position to make a break off the ball-carrier's shoulder on several occasions in the second half, but the opportunity for his 16th try in his 28th international never came. Like the rest of the plums in Lancaster's basket, he will be waking up bruised this morning.


Scorers – England: MTuilagi try; T Flood 3 pens. Australia: N Cummins try; B Barnes 4 pens, drop-goal.

England: A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt (O Farrell 74), C Sharples (M Brown 61); T Flood, D Care (B Youngs 61); J Marler (M Vunipola 49), T Youngs (D Paice 74), D Cole; T Palmer (J Launchbury 54), G Parling; T Johnson (T Wood 49), C Robshaw, T Waldrom.

Australia: B Barnes; N Cummins, A Ashley-Cooper, B Tapuai, D Ioane (D Mitchell 69); K Beale, N Phipps; B Robinson (J Slipper 60), T Polota-Nau (Moore h-t), B Alexander (S Kepu 70); S Timani, N Sharpe; D Dennis (L Gill 55-66, 76), M Hooper, W Palu.

Referee: R Poite (France)

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