In the history of the bitter rivalry between England and Australia, few contests have been as heartbreaking as Saturday. The Aussies put the final nail in the coffin Wales built to cause the worst World Cup finish in the history of a host nation and English rugby itself.
In the aftermath there will be calls for changes; some of them big, some of them small. The fallout of this result will be felt for some time, but for now it is time to review the match itself.
Looking at how England failed so miserably is part of the inquest to see what needs to be done to rebuild English rugby from its lowest point. Here are the main factors that lead to the fall of the house of Stuart Lancaster.
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Largely, England were second best in the areas that were expected. Simply looking at the current form of key players, and the specific traits of personnel, there were a number of alarm bells when going through the team sheet.
The really disappointing thing was that England seemed to do nothing to address these concerns in the build up to the most important match of Stuart Lancaster’s tenure. Looking through the wider squad revealed frailties in England's ability to change the game.
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Australia have their athletic, lineout winning locks, but can change at the drop of a hat to a huge ball carrying behemoth in Skelton. They can pick a moderated classic back row with a grafter, a fetcher, and a carrier; or they can play Michael Hooper and David Pocock together and wreak breakdown havoc.
Their backline combinations are almost endless so I daren't even start to presume the number of different approaches they could employ if they wished.
The same is true of the French, Irish, South African and New Zealand squads; simply put: the top teams in the world. Even with Wales injury crisis they have the same back row flexibility as the Wallabies. England did not. When the starting flankers don't perform well, or don't play the right way to beat the opposition at least, there was no Plan B.
The scrum that struggled against Fiji was employed against a collective that dominated the same opposition. To expect anything resembling parity was optimistic at best.
England needed ballast in the engine room above all other factors, but their options to increase power within the squad were limited. Excluding Dave Attwood left England with nowhere when the front line went down, and more power was needed.
It is a strange thing to realize that England came to a World Cup without a front row option that can challenge Australia. After the changes were made from the sideline, there was no change on the pitch. Man for man Australia had us hamstrung in the scrum. Penalty after penalty all but put paid to England's already slim hope of survival.
Not only did England not effectively plan their own performance, but the Australian threat didn’t seem to have been identified. Hooper and Pocock together indicate an emphasis on turnover ball. Forgetting England’s lack of true Openside for the time being, there didn’t seem to be any urgency to protect their own ball.
For a Sunday league side, you’d imagine the coach having his players clearing out rucks like their lives depended on it all week long. Maybe professional players don’t need such basic drills, but then again; maybe they do.
There were nine turnovers in open play, and while England looked pretty good building phases with the ball in hand, it never led anywhere threatening because we couldn't secure consecutive quick ball.
Once again this an area where the top teams excel. Recycling possession is priority number one, but watching England it looks like an afterthought.
The use of England’s bench has been questionable for some time. Changes for the sake of changes have coincided with dips in form, and collective concentration; certainly not impact and tempo. Only George Ford has had positive effects off the sideline. The only scenario in which Wigglesworth could be of value is to play percentage rugby and close out a win. His appearances have generally meant a decrease in attacking potential.
The lack of forward planning and a flexible bench was highlighted when Jonny May came off with injury. With a winger going off England’s best option was to put Barritt in the position where he failed so miserably the week before, and to move the best attacking threat in Jonathan Joseph to the wing. How can that situation not have a better contingency?
Imagining a bench that includes the likes of Jack Nowell, and you have a versatile player who can cover centre or wing with X-Factor. Henry Slade is another such player who can change a game from anywhere in the midfield. Even having Joe Simpson covering Scrum Half gives the option of having his considerable pace covering the wide positions if necessary. These all seemed to be scenarios that the England management did not consider.
Too Much Faith
Throughout Lancaster's tenure, he has made many difficult decisions with regard to personnel. And along the way he has admirably rewarded players with faith when they have lost form. But during a World Cup, his loyalty was not repaid.
Joe Marler has not been the scrummaging wrecking ball he had become. Ben Youngs talked a good game, but looked ponderous and lethargic getting to the base against Australia. Sam Burgess was picked over and above some outstanding candidates, and may have done his job; but was he really the standard of a World Cup winning centre?
Finally Chris Robshaw failed to even get out of the traps. He looked sluggish and more tired than inspired all tournament. He may not be the turnover merchant we all wish he was, but even his expected work rate was absent.
All of these players were doubted going into the big games, and none of them responded. Either they are not mentally dialled in to what was required, or they are simply not good enough.
Either way, Lancaster's approach has proved second place to the likes of Warren Gatland, who cut out big names from his squad in favour of form, and Cheika, who went above and beyond to secure the likes of Giteau from playing abroad.
The philosophy of England rugby needs to be closely examined in the wake of its greatest ever failure.
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