Here in the northern hemisphere we don’t really like that Southern Hemisphere bunch. Look at them, always smugly beating us, playing in pleasant conditions and entertaining us with their silky handling skills and electric running. It’s unbearable. However, there is one very much appreciated exception to the rule, and that’s England v Australia. An exception made all the sweeter by the fact that, though both nations will hate to admit it, we’re very similar. Let’s look at the facts – we’re ungracious winners, sore losers, we barbecue at every opportunity and we both have a smaller, irritating neighbour that beats us in rugby on a regular basis. But, of late, it’s been England who have had the nudge on their great rivals from down under.
There are so many classic England v Australia clashes – too many to list off here. Aside from the two World Cup finals, there’s been games like the 2007 quarter final, where the Australian set piece was obliterated by Andy Sheridan, or the 2010 thriller where England – and Chris Ashton – really cut loose. And the build up seems to always be the same – it’s England’s big, grumpy pack against the Wallabies’ free flowing and skilful backline. But the fixture always throws up the odd surprise, whether it was England’s back play in 2010 or the Wallaby scrum in 2012, somebody always upsets the odds and makes a big impression.
But one area where there is plenty of difference this weekend is in the pressure stakes, with England expected to win in what is effectively the World Cup warm up, seeing as we’re 10 months away from the ‘big one’ in the rugby’s showpiece event. That pressure has been ratcheted up a couple of notches after the hosts have suffered 5 defeats in their last 6 games (admittedly with those defeats coming to New Zealand and South Africa), whilst new coach Michael Cheika has the benefit of a ‘honeymoon phase’, where he can experiment with his side without suffering the pressure from bad results. Who that benefits more, I don’t know, but what we do know is that this fixture is never dull and the result is always hard to call. Unlike most Southern v Northern games.
NB It would be amiss to not mention or show our respects to Phil Hughes, who lost his life after being injured playing cricket in Australia. It puts the drama of these games into perspective and the sporting world as a whole sends their thoughts out to his loved ones. You can be sure the Wallabies will be playing for him as well this afternoon.
England Team News
England have dropped Owen Farrell for Billy Twelvetrees as one of three changes to the starting XV that dispatched Samoa. Kyle Eastmond, who started the series at inside centre, is curiously overlooked again. Farrell has been left out for the first time since June 2012 after under-performing this autumn and is demoted to the bench. Twelvetrees is selected at inside centre, while Dylan Hartley replaces Rob Webber at hooker and Tom Wood comes in at blind-side flanker for James Haskell.
Starting Line-up: 15-Brown, 14-Watson, 13-Barritt, 12-Twelvetrees, 11-May, 10-Ford, 9-B Youngs; 1-Marler, 2-Hartley, 3-Wilson, 4-Attwood, 5-Lawes, 6-Wood, 7-Robshaw (captain), 8-MorganSubs: 16-Webber, 17-Mullan, 18-Brookes, 19-Kruis, 20-Haskell, 21-Wigglesworth, 22-Farrell, 23-Yarde
Billy Twelvetrees. The Gloucester man hasn’t been playing badly for his club, but neither has he been in top nick. That being said, he impressed when he came on against Samoa last weekend and – at the end of the day – he is a natural 12 as opposed to a fly-half playing out of position. He’s up against Matt Toomua, a bloke who seems to have a bit of a hoodoo over the ex-Tigers centre – he obliterated Twelvetrees in the Brumbies v Lions tour match in 2013 and then ran over him to score in the Autumn Internationals. Twelvetrees has to make sure his defence is up to scratch and concentrate on doing the basics well – his problems often come when he feels he has to force his (considerably varied and talented) game to try and force opportunities.
There are three changes to the Australia side that started the defeat by Ireland last weekend. Lock Rob Simmons comes in to earn his 50th cap, while youngster Sean McMahon returns at blindside flanker. With Tevita Kuridrani unavailable because of an ankle injury, Adam Ashley-Cooper switches from winger to outside centre, allowing Rob Horne to start in the number 14 shirt.
Starting Line-up: 15-Folau, 14-Speight 13-Ashley-Cooper, 12-Toomua, 11-Horne, 10-Foley, 9-Phipps; 1-Slipper, 2-Faingaa, 3-Kepu, 4-Carter, 5-Simmons, 6-McMahon, 7-Hooper (captain), 8-McCalmanSubs: 16-Hanson, 17-Robinson, 18-Alexander, 19-Skelton, 20-Jones, 21-White, 22-Cooper, 23-Beale
Sean McMahon. The name may sound unfamiliar to many English fans (unless you happen to follow Super Rugby closely or were big fans of wrestling 10 years ago...) but the youngster has all the assets to become a fixture in the international side for the next decade. A blindside flanker in the classic mould, the 20 year old was a huge hit for the Rebels this year and it earned him the Australian conference ‘Rookie of the Year’ award. Big, physical and mobile, he’ll be coming up against an England pack that has been impressive with their aggressive physicality so far this autumn – he’ll have to match up to that to get his side a foothold in the loose.
Chris Robshaw v Michael Hooper. It won’t have escaped Hooper’s attention – or world rugby’s, for that matter – that a certain Mr Pocock is nearing full fitness back down under after nearly 2 years out with consecutive knee problems. The Brumbies star is – or was – regarded as one of the finest opensides on the planet, but Hooper is now surely right up there too. He’s perhaps not as devastating over the ball as Pocock, but his carrying and general work rate set him out as a class above. He’ll be trying to nullify Robshaw, England’s skipper, most consistent performer and a man who is, in many ways, a similar player. Both men love to get their hands on the ball and try to influence the game – and they often do, so today’s result may hinge on simply who puts in the bigger shift out of these two work-horses.
Out of all the southern hemisphere nations, Australia is the one that England seem to have the most joy against, and there is a reason behind that. Aside from the well-publicised set piece dominance (which doesn’t occur as often as you’d think), England’s pack simply seem to be able to bully their counterparts in the tight exchanges. There are a lot of positives to take so far from Cheika’s reign – such as inventiveness and incision out wide – but I’m not sure that physical dominance is one of them. This is a critical game for England and I think they’ll raise their game accordingly, even though Wallabies will be emotionally charged after this week. Another close one, but England should – and must – edge it. England by 6.
Wales v South Africa: My full preview of this potential nail-biter is up here: http://www.therugbyblog.com/autumn-internationals-2014-wales-vs-south-africa-prediction, but suffice to say that I have a nasty feeling that the Welsh will be in for another weekend of heartbreak. South Africa by 4.