A Jonny May brace helped England secure their first world cup knock out win since 2007.
Two easy games, a red card, and Typhoon Hagibis meant that heading into this game, England were still relatively untested. They were pretty much in ‘second gear going into the game’ according to starting scrum half Ben Young. Having not played a game in two weeks, there were fears amongst some England fans that their typical fast start would not materialise.
They were right to be worried: Australia came out of the blocks fast. They were running absolutely everything and the speed of ball that they were getting resulted in the English defensive line constantly retreating and those in the white were probably relieved when their opponents eventually settled for the penalty 10 minutes in. 3-0 to Australia. This seemed like a smart decision at the time, to get the scoreboard rolling. However, the fact they failed to cross the white wash after ten minutes of constant pressure was something they would come to rue just minutes later.
From the restart,the Aussies tried to continue playing attacking rugby, but inside your own twenty-two in a World Cup quarter final was always going to be a gamble; a gamble that didn’t pay off. England turned the ball over and launched their first real attack of the game. Although they weren’t getting the same speed of ball, their use of dummy runners and variation in attack made them look a lot more threatening than their southern hemisphere opponents. After constant phases through the middle, England eventually went wide to find Jonny May on the overlap who dotted down to score. Farrell got the extras: 7-3 to England.
The self-destruction from the ‘head’s up’ Australian game plan didn’t end there however. They clearly wanted to strike back quickly, and so continued to run everything. This made more sense given that they were in England’s half. However, their execution was not good enough to play the game plan Michael Cheika had sent them out to play. When Christian Leali’ifano failed to gather David Pocock’s short ball, Henry Slade intercepted. He pinned his ears back for 40m but as the try line beckoned, Kurtley Beale was gaining on him. Intelligently he kicked ahead, and May was there again to gather and score in the same corner he had done just minutes before. Farrell also replicated the previous score to make it 14-3.
The immediacy of England’s two scores after Australia had been so dominant in the first 10 left them fairly shell shocked and for the remainder of the half Farrell and Leali’ifano traded penalties, with the Australian getting a late score to reduce the gap to 17-9 at the break.
The second 40 started in a similar fashion to the first. Australia came out of the blocks well and were causing England real defensive issues. However, this time Australia didn’t have to settle for a penalty, a flowing move eventually saw Marika Koroibete have a 1-on-1 against Elliot Daly. Koroibete fainted outside, then sharply cut back in, leaving Daly for dead as he dotted down: 17-16 to England. All of a sudden, England’s lead was as little as one point and Australia were right back in the match. All they had to do was exit well from the restart and keep the momentum for the next ten minutes or so. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t do this.
After several poor attempts to run the ball out, Will Genia attempted an equally poor clearance kick which gave England a lineout just outside their opponent’s twenty-two. Another long attack, eventually saw Farrell taking the ball to the line and finding Kyle Sinkler. The tight-head picked a perfect running line and expertly used his dummy runners to break through the defence. Despite being a forward he had more than enough gas and even allowed himself a smile before diving over.
At 24-16, the eight-point lead and the momentum was now restored, and it was a lead England weren’t going to let slip. They ruthlessly took the penalties whenever they were on offer and effectively kicked Australia out of the game as they found themselves 33-16 up with fifteen to go. This forced the Aussies to play risky, catch-up rugby. Anthony Watson took full advantage of this as he intercepted Beale’s three man miss pass and had a casual run in to the delight of all the England fans.
Despite another good attack from Koroibete, who was the only shining light in a fairly lacklustre Australian performance, they didn’t alter the scoreboard and England ran out comfortable winners by 40 points to 16.
Scoreline flattering England?
England were the far better side, but this doesn’t mean it was as one-sided as the scoreline suggests, they were under real pressure at the start of both halves. But Australia’s suicidal game plan meant that on both occasions England were able to score straight back and undo all the hard work and momentum that the Australians had had. Especially after the Sinkler try, Australia were left so deflated as they felt they were right back in the game and then as quickly as they were back in it, they were out of it again.
Kamikaze Kids v Pooper
A big talking point going into this game was the battle between the flankers. On both sides, there were two players who fit the typical ‘7’ mould, Eddie Jones’ Kamikaze Kids of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill against the Australians Michael Hooper and David Pocock (Pooper). Four years ago, Hooper and Pocock had been influential in defeating England in the group stages and dragging Australia all the way to the final, but although Hooper is still playing well, 32-year-old Pocock does look slightly past it.
Conversely, Curry and Underhill have taken to the international stage like ducks to water. Because of Australia’s ridiculously quick speed of ball, they struggled to slow the ball down as the rucks were so short. But they did manage to get several key turnovers, the first England try came from a Curry turnover and he again was able to win back possession in the second half when Australia had opted to kick to the corner instead of taking the three points. Their tackling was also far superior than Pooper’s, Underhill is currently the best in the world at the chop tackle and he also has an impressive leg drive to help both his defence and attack. Many thought whoever won the battle of the flankers would win the game, they were not wrong.
Just over a day after the defeat, Australia head coach Michael Cheika announced he would not be looking to renew his contract with the ARU when it ran out at the end of this year. This was not just because of this one match, since reaching the final at the last world cup Australia have been consistently poor. His win rate was at around only 50% and his outlandish comments going into the game meant that when his side did lose their 7th successive match against the England there was very little chance of his staying on.
As said, his departure wasn’t just because of this one game, but he did get his tactics totally wrong in this match. He was trying to play unstructured ‘head’s up’ rugby, which can work, but he didn’t have the calibre of players to execute this tactic. His key decision makers at 9 and 10 were constantly being changed and it showed. They were not used to playing with the backline and because of this they regularly were making the wrong decisions; trucking the ball up the middle when they had the overlap and then going wide when they did not. Samu Kervei at 12 looked blunt at times and against a defence like England’s, only relying on quick ball was always going to be to basic to cause them constant problems throughout the game.
The other issue with Cheika’s game plan was that they refused to exit properly from restarts. Playing head’s up rugby doesn’t mean you run everything, it means you play what is in front of you. Consistently, Australia refused to clear their lines having just scored, and it this was how England were able to score straight back through May and Sinkler. It was a decision from a less experienced coach that you would call naïve, but from someone like Cheika it is a decision you call stupid. In a World Cup quarter final, it is not about being the most attractive team who is playing the best rugby, it’s about finding a way to win. Running the ball from everywhere normally means you’ll do the former, but not the latter.
What’s next for England?
Despite winning by 24 points, England still look like they have more to give. They definitely got out of second gear, but probably didn’t go any higher than fourth. Their semi-final is against the double World Champions New Zealand on Saturday at 8.45 (live on ITV). If they’re going to win that one, they will probably have to find another gear or two.
by Xander Chevallier