After all the pre-match posturing, jibes and general banter, the gloves finally came off between Australian and English rugby in a spectacular first Test match in Brisbane.
I cannot remember a more eagerly awaited Test match series in Australia than this one, given what was at stake for both sides. There is clearly no love lost between the two teams; and England, whether you like it or not, deservedly walked away with the spoils.
At the risk of sounding like a broken gramophone record, for England to rack up 39 points against the second best team in the world in their own back yard, eight months on from a record loss at Twickenham, is some achievement.
One cannot help but feel that the Australian press continue to write England`s team talk. Of course, the old cliché of ‘you never need any motivation to pull on the jersey’ is true but England were pumped running out in Brisbane and remained so right up until the ice recovery baths.
They are an angry team lead by chief instigator Eddie Jones and a lot of this is down to the way they have been treated since landing on Australian shores two weeks ago. Personally, I think the traditional rivalry between these two great nations should remain. Let`s face it, it is in our DNA and both sets of fans love a bit of badgering. It is a chance to get one over your mates and provides for an interesting debate on Monday morning.
Shut your mouths, Fox Sports
However, I would imagine Michael Cheika would be hoping that the Australian media, particularly Fox Sports, keep their mouths shut as his under siege team gear up for the all-important second Test in Melbourne.
Cheika is a decent man and humble to boot, especially when not rising to the bear-baiting tactics that Mr. Jones had been outlining on pre-series planning in the lead-up to Brisbane. Cheika does not need the likes of Greg Martin, Phil Kearns and now Stephen Hoiles provoking Jones and the England players anymore. It was very clear that this is a very different England outfit to the laughing stock that was presented to the Wallabies in the infamous World Cup pool game.
They are fit, highly driven and grumpy; the latter being very evident throughout the first Test. James Haskell, who was immense, suggested that the daily heckling experienced throughout their stay has only added to their objective of proving that they can win in these parts. Judging by Haskell`s performance, he was spot on with that observation. He rattled Pocock early on and was a muscular nuisance all around the field – not quite the pre conceived `bodyline tactics` but not far off.
Cheika now has to deal with the fact that his best player, David Pocock, is out of the series, which is a huge blow for the team. The much discussed breakdown battle was just about honours even, which is more in credit for the Poms given the struggles they had at the hands of Pocock and Hooper back in November. Cheika has to work out who can replace Pocock, especially as England`s back row eventually got used to the pace of the game and pilfered a few turnovers of their own.
Unthinkable for the Wallabies
So if the Wallabies are to avoid the unthinkable this weekend, how are they going to turn things around?
There are two key players for this: Bernard Foley and Israel Folau. When they worked together on Saturday night, they were poetry in motion against England. Foley`s pass late in the second half to put Folau in space for Hooper`s second try was absolute class. The challenge for Cheika is to ensure that Foley has the ball as much as possible with a yard or two of space for Folau to work his magic in. No easy thing, given England`s improved rush defence and fitness.
Cheika will certainly take comfort from the four tries to three that the Australians managed to win on the night. England will improve defensively for Melbourne but in Foley they have the most improved playmaker in the international game. How they miss Kurtley Beale, his presence could have made a significant difference.
Stating the obvious, the Wallaby scrum has to front-up this coming weekend. James Horwill is a big unit and also has a bit of insider knowledge on the Harlequins boys like Chris Robshaw. Horwill also likes the grunt work and will add much needed ballast to the Wallaby forward unit.
I think Sean McMahon has to be considered for a shift in the backrow with Scott Fardy moving to number eight. McMahon has been excellent for the Rebels this season and has one hell of an engine on him. England pulled away in the last 10-minutes and if the Aussies are going to win they need to go to the 80th minute; therefore the likes of McMahon will need to be there.
Make or break in Melbourne
So all eyes go to Melbourne, and what a Test match we have to look forward to.
The off-the-field banter has only added a bit of spice to this potential decider and England will not lack motivation. Both teams will improve and for me it is whether England can iron out a few of their defensive lapses. If they do I can only see England sealing their much-coveted series win.
The men in white are fired up to the eye balls, Pocock is out and I don’t think the likes of Greg Martin will be able to resist a dig or two during the week, which will only add to England`s focus. It is going to be mighty close and all that remains to find the necessary Saturday evening excuse toward your other half to be able to watch what is sure to be a classic game of rugby.
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