TWICKENHAM — England finish 2016 unbeaten and their metamorphosis from World Cup flops to an admired, feared side is complete.
They have won 13 from 13 this year but more importantly, have developed a mental strength to draw themselves back together when faced with sporting adversity. This was a match they could have lost and had the Wallabies — who crossed England’s line four times in the first half for one try — had a more favourable bounce of the ball then England would have struggled to pin back what should have been a large lead.
But that warrior spirit they showed in the second Test against Australia in Melbourne and for the bulk of the game against Argentina was evident again as they scored two tries in five second-half minutes to end this as a contest.
They suffered the slowest of starts against the Wallabies, but possessed the wherewithal to regroup mid-match. Having waved Australia through for the first 18 minutes of the match, Eddie Jones sent out the replacements to warm up. Message received and England slowly got a foothold in the match.
At that stage the Wallabies had the game by the scruff of the neck with David Pocock and Michael Hooper excelling at the breakdown, giving clean ball from which the Australians stormed forward. But for all of Australia’s 42 gainline successes in the first half, the men in green and gold were only three points ahead at the break.
It was a tale of two kicks as England hauled back the Wallabies, who at one stage had a 10-0 lead. For so much of the first half England were rattled, their defence porous but then came the toe of Owen Farrell to tee up Jonathan Joseph to score in the 30th minute. The centre then turned provider for Marland Yarde’s score in the second half with the most deliciously weighted of kicks which triggered a spell of dominance.
Joseph was outstanding for England and read Pocock’s floated pass with brilliant lucidity to score late on while Farrell also did a huge amount of work in defence.
Ben Youngs also impressed. He has flourished under Jones and it was his quick-thinking which saw England score their third as he tapped and went at a penalty, dummied Nick Phipps and scored. Job done.
For all the talk of the scrum’s dark arts in the run up to the match, there was parity there with a penalty apiece while their set piece was solid — an area Jones identified as fundamental to England’s game plan at the start of the year.
There are marked improvements there with Dylan Hartley captaining the side superbly but Jones will look at other areas to tweak like their attack and enjoy that task.
There was enough about this match which will give Jones food for thought in the winter break between this final Test of the autumn internationals and the start of the Six Nations. There are no question marks over Yarde’s finishing ability but he could not get near Sefa Naivalu while Israel Folau also enjoyed marked gains in his channel. Then there was the ease with which Sekope Kepu galloped through England’s defence which meant the last 15 minutes were far more nervy than needed.
The second was due to two missed tackles, but those are areas which can be corrected and Paul Gustard, England’s impressive defence coach, will relish the challenge of reinforcing their blockade.
The question now comes of just how far England can go. A real test of them will come when they eventually lose and how they react to that but at the moment they are brimming with confidence and have unlocked an extra ounce of mental strength which makes them so formidable. But with that comes a target on their backs and they will be the team to beat in the Six Nations.
The favourite’s tag is not one they are accustomed to, but will now have to wear that burden.
That’s for 2017 but as they reflect on a truly memorable year they will look at how far they have come as a group. At the start of the year they were on their knees, England rugby was at its lowest ebb. But now in December – despite having a host of players out injured – it was England who stood, hugged, defiant. As Swing, Low drifted on the cold, winter sky, they had completed the unbeaten year and the smiles stretched from ear to ear. But Jones will say it’s only the start.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY