Had there been a referendum here this week Australians would have voted unanimously for England’s rugby players to leave. Even if the visitors do lose the third Test and fail to gain a 3-0 series margin it has been a memorable tour that has confounded their reputation locally as oval-ball dullards. Eddie Jones complained about being searched at the airport on arrival but he can expect to be fast-tracked through departures.
It is worth remembering, too, that the past month has not simply been a triumph for Jones, such a shrewd manipulator of friend and foe alike. Insufficient credit has been paid to Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick, his assistant coaches, who have helped to transform England’s defensive and forward urgency. Then there is Dylan Hartley, whose captaincy touch has been as spot-on as Jones’s laser-beam judgment. Rarely has a supposed bad‑boy leader presided over such a feelgood revival.
The skipper has been particularly impressive this week: setting the right tone at training, stressing the importance of the final Test and even presenting a cheque from the squad to the Coogee Surf Club to help out with repairs following this month’s destructive storms. Chris Robshaw, his predecessor, remains one of the squad’s reliable cogs but England look a different animal with the slightly edgier Hartley at the helm.
For him to be mentioned as a viable candidate to captain the British and Irish Lions’ tour to his native New Zealand next year is conclusive evidence of his contribution, given he was suspended from the last Lions trip to Australia in 2013. His currently injured team‑mate James Haskell, another influential tour figure, is pretty keen to join him: “The closest I’ve got to the Lions so far is London zoo. Lions’ tours are what dreams are made of. For me that’s bigger than anything. To play in a Test match – I’d probably explode in pride, disbelief and excitement.”
Saturday’s game at Allianz Stadium, just across from the Sydney Cricket Ground, will have a slightly different feel but, given the early Bodyline theme of the tour, it feels an appropriate choice of venue. There were even faint echoes of Douglas Jardine in Hartley’s final pre-match address. “I want to be remembered this week as a winner,” said the Northampton hooker, brushing aside any notion of English complacency with the series already won. “We want to be the best team in the world. The best team in the world doesn’t win two games and then clock off in the last one. They win three games. I don’t want to go on holiday next week with a loss.”
The 30-year-old grew up in New Zealand and has a fair idea of how the All Blacks would respond to this sort of situation, regardless of England’s eight successive wins under Jones since the beginning of February. “We don’t think about the last eight games, we just think about preparing for this week and what makes us tick. I don’t know precisely what the All Blacks do but as soon as you don’t prepare well you become complacent and then the weekend becomes a gamble,” he said. “I know if we prepare well and have clarity in what we’re doing, everyone can be confident. When you’ve got confidence you can go out and play.”
Hartley confirmed last Tuesday’s contact session, the final one of a marathon season, had been among the most intense of recent times. “Tuesday is the big physical day and you’d think that as it’s the last one of the season the boys might think: ‘We’ll just get through this.’ But it was probably the most physical Tuesday I’ve seen from the guys.”
It has given him the belief that, for the first time since 1971, the Wallabies can be whitewashed at home: “I don’t know what Australia will do but I know what we’ll do; we’ll front up like we’ve done every week. We’re going to be physical and we’re going out to win the game.”
Hartley’s team-mates love that kind of pre-match rhetoric. “I think it’s funny people thought [appointing him] was a controversial decision,” said Haskell. “Anyone who’s vanilla is never really that successful. I’m not saying Dylan’s got a flawed character. What I’m saying is that a little bit of edge, a little bit of something about you, is good. It shows you know both sides of the path. He’s been great for us.”
Jones has also saluted Hartley’s ability to set the tone, describing his captaincy as “absolutely outstanding”. For all his talk of this weekend as the equivalent of a World Cup final, though, there is no sense England are yet approaching their final destination. Victory this weekend would stretch their winning run since the final World Cup pool game against Uruguay to 10 games, only four short of the national record established by Clive Woodward’s side between 2002 and 2003. That team were at their peak; this squad have an average age of around 24. With the under-20s team contesting their world championship final against Ireland on Saturday, Jones is not alone in detecting better times ahead, on the field at least.
“It’s great for the players because eight months ago they weren’t feeling very good about themselves,” he said. “The whole English rugby community wasn’t feeling good about itself but now rugby has an opportunity for a big lift in England.”
All that remains – to coin a redundant phrase – is to finish in the manner to which this squad are becoming accustomed. Jones lost the last Test he coached in Sydney by 30-13 to New Zealand but Owen Farrell, George Kruis, Billy and Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje take some beating these days. If England’s attacking game has yet to flourish consistently, Farrell’s outstanding goal-kicking has so far rendered that deficiency largely irrelevant.
The Wallabies, for their part, look marginally stronger in the front five and finally have a specialist second ball-player at 12, both of which should make them more dangerous. They might be vulnerable at the lineout, though, and England have been doing a good impression all week of a team with another big game in them. Assuming that famous old military figure General Fatigue does not intervene, a narrow, high-scoring victory and a 3-0 series success would deliver Hartley’s squad another jam-filled slice of history.
Australia I Folau (Waratahs); D Haylett-Petty (Western Force), T Kuridrani (Brumbies), M Toomua (Brumbies), R Horne (Waratahs); B Foley (Waratahs), N Phipps (Waratahs); J Slipper (Reds), S Moore (Brumbies, capt), S Kepu (Waratahs), W Skelton (Waratahs), R Simmons (Reds), S Fardy (Brumbies), M Hooper (Waratahs), S McMahon (Rebels). Replacements T Polota-Nau (Waratahs), S Sio (Brumbies), G Holmes (Reds), A Coleman (Western Force), W Palu (Waratahs), N Frisby (Reds), C Leali’ifano (Brumbies), T Naiyaravoro (Waratahs).
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), T Harrison (Northampton), 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).
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