In the first installment of the #rugbyready blog series I will be taking you through the astonishing turn of events that brought English rugby back from world cup embarrassment, to Aussie domination.
After a stunning 44-40 triumph in Sydney on Saturday, England find themselves on a ten game unbeaten run (nine under Jones), which has seen a drastic change in fortune over the last eight months, going from 8th in the world rankings to 2nd following a grand-slam Six Nations campaign and the history-making tour of Australia.
To put this fantastic achievement into context, we must return to the point that set this chain of events into motion. October 3rd, 2015 saw England booed off the Twickenham pitch having been defeated 33-13 by the Wallabies and dumped out of the World Cup at the group stage, the first time a solo host nation had been eliminated before the knockout stage. This result saw them drop to 8th in the world rankings, and after a hollow victory against Uruguay, Stuart Lancaster stepped down as Head Coach.
Fast forward five months, and after appointing Eddie Jones as head coach, a change of captaincy, and a change of personnel (both coaching staff and players), a revitalised England find themselves Six Nations grand-slam champions for the first time since 2003, having comfortably dealt with all contenders with the only tight game coming against Wales at Twickenham. In the final match Eddie Jones’ side showed resolve to win, despite losing captain Hartley to concussion late on, this new England had picked up the habit of finding ways to win, whatever came their way. Many of the changes Jones made to the squad paid dividends, the most notable of which being the introduction of the young second row, Maro Itoje, who announced himself with a superb Six Nations campaign, and went on to win European Player of the year having also won the Aviva Premiership and the European Champions Cup with Saracens before the tour to Australia.
With the wind in their sails and confidence high, England comfortably beat Wales in a warm-up game dubbed the ‘Old Mutual Wealth Cup’ with half of the starting line-up away on club duty at the premiership play-offs, before flying down under to face the number 2 ranked team in the world, who had not been whitewashed at home since 1971.
The first test in Brisbane saw England score their highest total ever in Australia, winning 39-28 including 24 points through the boot of Farrell and tries by Joseph, Yarde and Nowell. In the first victory in Brisbane ever for England, Haskell and Itoje were stand out performers in defence, with Haskell winning man of the match and top tackler with 18 and also made a great gainline break in the run up to the second try, and Itoje showing great maturity in only his sixth test match for England in which he had positive contributions in abundance, from stealing lineout ball, to contesting at the breakdown and making yardage when called upon. Farrell and Ford also had great games, with the former cementing his status as a world-class kicker with eight out of 9 successful kicks, which is fast becoming the norm. Ford played well when brought on after less than 30 minutes with Luther Burrell being removed for a poor defensive display, and the fly-half showed his class again after an awful kicking display against Wales with a long, looping pass for Yarde’s try and a perfect kick in behind for Nowell to score. With one more victory to go in order to make history with the first ever series test win over Australia, England had the momentum going into Melbourne.
The second test at the AAMI Stadium was an attritional and brutal game of rugby with two of the three tries scored by the respective captains on the rolling maul. Intensity was ramped up in contrast to the free-scoring 1st test and after 11 minutes a 30-man scuffle ensued, which saw Cole lose his shirt. This intensity lead to a defensive master class by England, as limiting the hard-running Wallabies, who were on top of England and in possession of the field position and territory for the majority of the game, to one try is no mean feat. This was down to the resolute defending of the English, who made 169 tackles compared to Australia’s 49, but also down to handling errors by the Wallabies, who continually spilt the ball at crucial times, and were punished by Jones’ men. The final score was 23-7 to England, with Farrell putting three penalty kicks through the uprights as well as converting his and Hartley’s tries. The stats say it all, as top tackler yet again was Haskell with 21, followed by Itoje on 20, Billy Vunipola on 18 and Farrell making 16, showing the fight and ’wolfpack’ mentality instilled in them by Paul Gustard as the whole team were chipping in and working hard in defence. With this victory England become history makers, as the first England side to win a test series in Australia, and with that they leapfrog the Wallabies in the world rankings, to go to 2nd place.
Despite the series win, Jones refused to change a winning squad and give the likes of Henry Slade, Alex Goode and Ben Te’o a run out, in order to make sure the whitewash was completed, treating the three test series as a quarter-final, semi-final and final as if England have any hopes of winning the world cup in 2019 they need to be able to beat world class opposition in the same fashion. A fantastic test match ensued, with nine tries being shared amongst the two sides, and despite England trailing the Wallabies on several occasions; they managed to dig in to give the Australians their first whitewash since 1971. Jones’ gifted youngster Teimena Harrison his second start in place of the injured Haskell, but again showed his ruthless side by pulling him off after just 31 minutes for lack of physicality, replacing him with Lawes (who had a fantastic game) and entrusting the no. 6 slot to wonderkid Itoje.
Whilst the defensive coaches will not gave enjoyed watching the game, tries from Cole, Brown, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and 24 points from the boot of Farrell, who ended the series with 66 points, secured the win for the red rose with a final scoreline of 44-40, surpassing the first test scoreline as the most points scored by England against Australia down under. Although there was no official man of the match, Owen Farrell and Jack Nowell would certainly have been contenders, with the former’s kicking again being world class, slotting 9 out of 10 kicks, and the latter showcasing his kicking ability with a 50m touch finder early on as well as his running ability, being the game’s top carrier with 79 meters.
This was a truly astonishing achievement, and the difference between the team that crashed out of the world cup, breaking records for the wrong reasons, and the team is now second in the world and the closest England have been to toppling the All Blacks in a long time, is remarkable. After an incredibly long season the players will be travelling home for a well earned rest before the start of the new season, where the Lions tour to New Zealand next summer will be in the back of all minds except Jones’, who’s next target will be to overcome the Kiwi’s reign as No.1 when the two meet in 2018, and with the Under 20’s winning the world cup on Saturday, the future of looks bright and England are certainly #RugbyReady for what’s to come.
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