AAMI Park, Melbourne — History makers. England won a turbulent, bloody match of rugby through sheer grit, mental strength and a complete lack of regard for their own safety. They are now ranked second in the world — behind only the All Blacks — have sewn up a first-ever series win in Australia with a game to spare and have completed the most remarkable comeback seen by a rugby side in recent memory.
They were pitch perfect on a surface unfit for Test rugby. This was a tale of turf war as no quarter was to be given, no blade of grass — or sandcastle — would be left undefended. After a feisty first half where England threw a few shots at Australia, it was a case of backs against the wall in the second period as they defended to an inch of their very being with the Wallabies unable to breach their wall of white.
At the centre of this effort was Chris Robshaw. To put into perspective the magnitude of this performance, we need to head back to October 3, 2015. The camera caught his haunted look as he assessed England’s 33-13 defeat to the Wallabies. Months on, demons were banished and after he led the team out on to the AAMI pitch for his 50th cap, he was at the forefront of their heroic defensive effort. His turnover on the 54th minute swung the game briefly in England’s favour after relentless pressure on their line. It was an all-court showing and he was ably helped by the superb, relentless James Haskell who made 21 tackles and put in another brilliant performance in what was the most brutal of contests.
The game ignited after just 11 minutes when Robshaw caught Nick Phipps with a high shot. Cole’s shirt felt the force and was ripped pit to hip and though it didn’t boil over to the extent cards were required, it felt as if the whole occasion was on a tipping point. There was provocation everywhere. England’s second-rows Maro Itoje and George Kruis were in the Australians’ ears at lineout time, and Michael Hooper appeared to use the atrocious surface to his advantage at a scrum by scraping sand in the direction of Haskell’s eyes. The teams even continued a bit of push and shove as they walked down the tunnel at half-time.
Australia will be left aggrieved by Craig Joubert’s leniency with the yellow card. England could have had personnel sin-binned at various stages of the game for clinical play on their own five-metre line but Joubert did not opt to remove a player for 10 minutes. It was a bold call but he managed to keep the pace of the game up even on this dreadful surface which simply could not take the pressure and power of the scrums.
Chris Robshaw’s dejection was clear to see after England lost 33-13 to Australia at Twickenham in October, ending their home World Cup dream. David Rogers/Getty Images
The Wallabies will wonder how they did not win this match. They ran twice as many metres as England, had 71 per cent possession and made just 169 tackles to Australia’s 49. But England made a mockery of statistics and even rubbed salt into the gaping Wallabies wound with Owen Farrell’s late try, which came on their first visit to the Australian 22 in the second half.
Bodyline rugby has been England’s mantra throughout this series. Australia came ready for a fight but simply could not match England’s physicality and defensive organisation. The line speed shut down Australia’s ball-runners and even Israel Folau found it difficult to break through. While their physicality was unmatched, George Ford’s game management was also essential as he pinned the Australians back by kicking high, long or short from hand, whichever was required.
The rest of the cast did their bidding but special mention has to go to England’s defence coach Paul Gustard. This win had his stamp all over it, one of minimising time on the ball and forcing errors.
A handful of minutes after full time, Eddie Jones walked around the squad shaking hands and giving out hugs. He will have loved this, it was a performance built in his image: feisty, confrontational and against-all-odds. Eight games down and Jones’ England are still undefeated. Only World Cup winners New Zealand stand above them in the rankings. They are no longer underdogs; they now have a target on their backs.
Jones will relish their new status — he has got England going to the beat of his drum and has masterminded the most astonishing volte face from this group of players. His message? He’ll want a 3-0 series victory with a win in Sydney — but he’ll allow himself a glass of pinot noir to toast this most improbable series win.
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