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England rugby Australia tour: How can Eddie Jones' squad win three-match series Down Under?


This feature appears in the current edition of Sport magazine, the brilliant free weekly publication. Follow them on Twitter @SportMagUK, check out their Facebook page and download the free iPad app here.

Eddie Jones delivers cricketing metaphors prolifically. Asked about Chris Robshaw’s unfussy performance against Scotland in February, England’s head coach shrugged: “Hmm, probably 10 overs for not many.”

Recently, the Australian mischievously channelled Douglas Jardine by comparing his team’s three-match series down under, which begins in Brisbane next Saturday, to the Bodyline Ashes battle of 1932/33. A fortnight back, he spoke of England’s acclimatisation process.

“It is like facing a fast bowler,” Jones explained. “The first ball, you don’t see. The second ball, if you’re lucky you see it and it doesn’t hit you. By the third, you can get on the front foot. In Australia, we have to be on the front foot ready to hit it.”

Since 1963, England boast just three victories in 17 away Tests against Australia, including the 2003 World Cup final. Jones never compromises on ambition, but the task is far from simple. After taking the Wallaby reins in October 2014, charismatic Michael Cheika has been hugely influential. For a start, Australia’s scrum no longer resembles soggy papier mache.

Spearheaded by starting props Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu, the visitors forced six set-piece penalties out of England – three on either put-in – during the 33-13 World Cup thumping at Twickenham in October.

Ruck and roll

A balanced back row of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and David Pocock dismantled England at the breakdown. Pocock pilfered the hosts into submission. Tellingly, one of Jones’ earliest moves was to bring in stellar Wasps recruit George Smith, a former protege, to lead some Six Nations clinics.

It is difficult to overstate Smith’s sway on the game. A pioneering exponent of the ‘jackal’ – crouching over prone opponents to snaffle possession or force penalties – he helped alter the rugby union landscape.

Smith’s brief was to improve decisionmaking in the defensive breakdown – when to attack the ball, when to counter-ruck and when to leave everything alone.

“You need to get technique right,” says the decorated 35-year-old. “Injuries occur if you don’t. Approaching a jackal, I can’t be hesitant – that’s another key thing.

“If you’re clearing out, you’ve got to be at the right body height and pushing your chin through so you keep a straight back, using the power from your hips.”

Smith refuses to entertain ‘proper openside’ hysteria, advising that “an orthodox seven might even be detrimental” to certain approaches of play. He is just as rational about referee interpretations. Romain Poite, Craig Joubert and Nigel Owens take charge of the three Tests, but Smith says England should not be preoccupied by personnel changes.

“As a player, you want a situation where the referee is invisible,” he explains. “They want to be invisible as well. If you do things wrong, you’re going to get pinged. It’s about trying to get everything right so you don’t grab the attention of the officials.”

Dynamic duo Teimana Harrison and Jack Clifford should energise England’s breakdown effort. Still, Pocock and Hooper – ‘Pooper’ – come with potent support acts. Fardy is a shrewd accomplice. Flankers Liam Gill and Sean McMahon could torment England, too. Although Australian franchises are underwhelming in Super Rugby – once-mighty Queensland Reds especially dire – Cheika’s squad has an ocean of talent.

Defensive duty

Befitting tradition, the Wallabies will field an athletic, incisive, intelligent backline with Bernard Foley at fly-half. The way he sliced England apart for his second try eight months ago was majestic. Jonathan Joseph, who played despite a partially detached pectoral muscle, remembers a relentless Australia that night. Jones wants England to assert themselves in attack and has enlisted long-time ally Glen Ella, brother of Australia great Mark.

Joseph is eager for England to expand from the “forward-dominant” tack of the Six Nations. That said, his often underrated defence will be vital, as Israel Folau and Tevita Kuridrani flood the 13 channel.

“People look at defence and think of big collisions,” says Joseph, blessed with superb spatial awareness. “I’m not the biggest guy, but I read the game pretty well.

“Predominantly at England, we’re a blitz defence. On the outside, we have licence to rush up and shut things off. Then they have to go back inside to our big boys, hopefully to get smashed. In the middle of the pitch, it’s harder to blitz because we have fewer numbers, so it’ll be more of a drift there.

“The main thing in all systems is communication. As long as I have my winger and whoever is inside me on the same page, usually we won’t get broken down.”

Australia trust themselves to move the ball and manipulate openings. On Cheika’s first autumn tour of Europe in November 2014, three Wallaby scrum-halves – Nick Phipps, Will Genia and Nic White – were used across four Tests. Between them, they passed the ball 431 times, ran 23 times and kicked just once.

Fitness tests

David Joyce, currently at the Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL outfit, spent three seasons as a physio with Saracens between 2002 and 2004. A decade later, he became head of athletic performance for Super Rugby side Western Force in Perth.

“The chief environmental difference will be the humidity in Brisbane [on June 11],” Joyce says. “Sydney [June 18] and Melbourne [June 25] could be chilly, but certainly not cold by English standards.

“Although grounds might be a little quicker, they should be broadly comparable to English pitches at this time of year. The Wallabies will look to strike on the outside, so England’s back three need to be fit enough to repeat efforts for 80 minutes.”

Joyce does not anticipate drastic changes to England’s physical preparation. Besides, Jones has another secret weapon. Tom Tombleson, an Oxford graduate who joined Stuart Lancaster’s staff two years ago, had five seasons with the Waratahs, crossing over with Cheika. He is not merely familiar with the enemy. He knows their bench-press PBs and fat percentages.

Accurate kicking, set-piece organisation, domineering defence and punchy phase-play hung on power runners, Billy Vunipola and perhaps Ben Te’o to the fore, would combine for a formidable template. Getting drawn into fractured exchanges – as they did in a frenetic first half in Paris – would be suicidal for England. When Argentina took on Australia in the Rugby World Cup semi final, the Pumas abandoned pragmatism. The Wallabies thrived, triumphing 29-15.

Parochial crowds and confrontational local journalists await England. Jones has preached the importance of team identity and, in foreign climes, his charges must stay true to themselves more than ever. The insight and ideas of Smith, Ella and Tombleson are just precious polish.

Snatch the series and England will consolidate their top-four world ranking, taking an authoritative step towards 2019. Hold tight, then – we might well be in for a final-over thriller.

George Smith was speaking for Dove Men+Care, as part of their #SCRUMTOGETHER teamwork competition. Visit @DoveMen on Twitter



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