In Australia they call it fossicking or noodling. Sometimes it can take decades of scouring the parched outback to secure the odd rare gem – perhaps opal or gold – lying unclaimed in a remote mining settlement such as Coober Pedy. Suddenly English rugby is in a similar situation; after years of fruitless June expeditions there is finally a glint of precious metal visible in the dirt.
A best-of-three series is a relatively new phenomenon, but if England do take an unbeatable 2-0 lead on Saturday by winning the second Test, and seize the Cook Cup with it, it will advance them a fair way down the dusty track from bust to boom. Victory, furthermore, would hoist Eddie Jones’s side to second in the World Rugby rankings, a mere 259 days after flopping out of their own World Cup in the pool stages. Hence the reason why Dylan Hartley, rapidly in danger of becoming the most reliably successful England captain since Mike Brearley, has been highlighting the “real history” to be made this weekend.
Last Saturday was the first time in the professional era that England have won the first Test of a summer tour series (as opposed to one-off Tests) against any of the big three southern hemisphere nations. Before Brisbane they had played 21 summer Tests against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa since 1998 and won only three. Apart from the World Cup-winning side of 2003 – who famously won in Wellington and Melbourne earlier that year – no England side have ever won back-to-back June Tests down south.
Hartley, who is set to become England’s most-capped hooker by overhauling Steve Thompson’s record of 73 appearances, has been actively seeking to use that tantalising prospect as extra motivation for all concerned. “After an historic win in Brisbane, it would have been easy to say: ‘We’ve done it, we’ve made some history.’ But straight afterwards in the changing room we said: ‘Well done everyone but we park that here and we go again.’ The bigger picture, the real history, is to be made this week and that is the challenge and opportunity for us. We are ready and I know the guys are desperate to win this weekend.”
There is also a cautionary tale doing the rounds, dating back to the second Test of the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour, when the visitors led at half-time only for a hopeful pass from Jonny Wilkinson to be intercepted by a lurking Joe Roff to give the Wallabies an unlikely way back into the series. The stray elbow from Nathan Grey, now the Wallabies assistant coach, which took out Richard Hill did not help either and a potentially successful Lions venture was finally scuppered by a stolen lineout in the dying seconds of the final Test in Sydney.
On such fine margins do reputations hinge, although England’s senior players have been doing their utmost to leave as little to chance as humanly possible. Their final training session at the 30,000-capacity AAMI Park on the banks of the river Yarra, just next door to the Rod Laver Tennis Arena and the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, coincided with a damp lunchtime but England’s players are long past the stage of being fair-weather operators. “This is our cup final and we have a chance to be the first team ever to do this,” said Hartley. “I see the attitude of all the players in training, I see the intensity and it’s been the best we’ve had. The key message has been: ‘Do everything you can to make sure you are best prepared to win this game and leave no stones unturned.’”
No one disputes England enjoyed the occasional slice of luck at Suncorp Stadium last week but, equally, they are becoming harder and harder to outwit under Jones. They did not win a Six Nations grand slam by accident and are proving increasingly adept at winning in extremis. While they cannot afford to donate Australia another two tries in the first 15 minutes, it would be a considerable surprise if they do not start substantially faster in all aspects of the game. The Wallabies remain grimly determined to square this series but the choking pressure that ultimately throttled English ambition at the World Cup is nowhere to be seen.
There is also a rising self-confidence that did not exist even six months ago. Maro Itoje, the modern-day English answer to the multitalented former Wallabies captain John Eales, has yet to lose a game he has started this season for club or country. Billy Vunipola also looks poised to make a sizeable contribution while, up on the bridge, Jones is boldly trekking where no Australian has gone before. Few understand better than he that the quickest way to gain respect in his homeland is to pile in without ceremony; denying the Wallabies backs time and space in which to locate their rhythm will be nonnegotiable.
England, accordingly, will set out to rattle the half-backs Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps, as well as testing out the reshuffled Australian set-piece combinations. Chris Robshaw, on the occasion of his 50th cap, and James Haskell will be looking to reproduce the same intensity of performance they delivered in Brisbane and Jones’s decision to stack the bench with six forwards and only two backs has been deliberately made in expectation of another rollicking, breathless encounter.
The touring team may just have been further aided by the Australian Rugby Union’s decision to host the game at a more intimate venue than the 56-000-capacity Docklands Stadium, where the Lions were narrowly defeated three years ago. There is a five-year deal to stage Australia Tests at the home of the Melbourne Rebels, even though the pitch has been causing some concern of late.
Players on both sides, however, have given it the thumbs-up, clearing the way for a contest that should once again be a stirring advert for international rugby. It is fashionable to lament there are fewer individual stars in the modern game; as far as the southern hemisphere is concerned, this England side certainly does not contain many household names. Collectively, though, Jones’s willing crew are within reach of a momentous achievement, a rare and precious nugget which would help to atone further for their very public burial last autumn. Doing so with a Test to spare would merely add further lustre.
Australia I Folau (Waratahs); D Haylett-Petty (Force), T Kuridrani (Brumbies), S Kerevi (Reds), R Horne (Waratahs); B Foley (Waratahs), N Phipps (Waratahs); J Slipper (Reds), S Moore (Brumbies, capt), S Kepu (Waratahs), S Carter (Brumbies), R Arnold (Brumbies), S Fardy (Brumbies), M Hooper (Waratahs), S McMahon (Rebels). Replacements T Polota-Nau (Waratahs), T Smith (Rebels), G Holmes (Reds), D Mumm (Waratahs), B McCalman (Western Force), N Frisby (Reds), C Lealiifano (Brumbies), L Morahan (Western Force).
England M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), J Nowell (Exeter Chiefs); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), G Kruis (Saracens), M Itoje (Saracens), C Robshaw (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements J George (Saracens), M Mullan (Wasps), P Hill (Northampton), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), J Clifford (Harlequins), D Care (Harlequins), E Daly (Wasps).
Referee C Joubert (South Africa).
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