The QBE Internationals are upon us and it has been a suitably fascinating build-up week. Injuries have scuppered the final team line-ups and other intriguing decisions have been made that are completely non-injury-related.
On the injury-front England will miss the guile of Geoff Parling. His experience of having played in all three Lions Tests would have provided a steady head should the game come down to the wire but the pairing of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes will add a great deal of bulk to support the front row, as well as a significant shift around the park to support the back row. Both have been in exemplary form for their clubs, Wasps and Saints respectively. Lawes will take over line-out command, a role that he’s enjoyed more experience of at club level.
Alex Corbisiero, who also shone on the Lions tour, is the other big name who has failed to come to full fitness in time but here we have another worthy replacement in the form of Mako Vunipola. Mako will take to the field with brother Billy, who comes into the starting line-up for the first time. Both, and Billy especially, will be charged with taking the ball to (and over) the gainline, as they’ve done so well for Saracens in the opening weeks of the Premiership, thus putting Australia on the back foot and allowing Owen Farrell to receive the ball flat.
In the backs the Lee Dickson has jumped ahead of Lions scrum-half Ben Youngs and the other no.9 shirt contender Danny Care. By far the in-form scrum-half in the Premiership, Dickson, while he might not have the pace of Youngs, beats him on distribution and if the pack can gain forward momentum, his delivery from he base of the ruck could be the difference in giving Farrell quick-ball.
Outside Farrell a new centre combination may be seen as a weakness but with the skills of Billy Twelvetrees and the strong running and offloading capabilities of Joel Tomkins outside him, the possibility of the back three get hands on the ball increases almost exponentially. If Chris Ashton can track Tomkins, like only Chris Ashton can, and with the exciting pace of Marland Yarde thrown in to boot, we could be in for some exciting, running rugby.
Flipping over to our golden, shackle-dragging friends [sorry couldn’t resist], the Wallaby management has thrown out some absorbing headlines in the build-up to the game.
James Horwill, who put in some fiercely passionate displays during the Lions tour, has been demoted from the captaincy and urged to “rediscover his passion” by new coach Ewen McKensie, with Brumbies no.8 Ben Mowen taking on the role. More interestingly, Quade Cooper, who this time last year was fined $40,000 by a disciplinary panel for bringing the game into disrepute after his ‘toxic’ remarks, has been given the vice-captain role.
The ramifications of these astonishing announcements obviously remain to be seen but Cooper in particular is renowned for being able to make or break a performance. If his head is in the game his talent is unquestionable but he has a tendency to fold under pressure and his behind-the-tryline, out-of-the-back passes can occasionally backfire.
In the centres, Ewen McKensie has stuck with his centre partnership that contributed to what was an admirable defeat to New Zealand in the final game of the Bledisloe Cup, though Christian Lealiifano, who proved his kicking capabilities during the Lions tour, is recalled to the bench
Elsewhere in Australian backline, Israel Folau is without doubt the find of the year. A phenomenal athlete, Folau has an uncanny ability to make ground with ball in hand. Given space, he’ll tear any defence to shreds.
Speaking to QBErugby earlier in the week, out-spoken former Wallaby winger David Campese naturally had his own views, namely that Folau should actually be playing outside centre:
Everything will stem from the forwards.
It’s impossible to talk about an England v Australia encounter without talking about the battle in the front five. Australia have historically struggled to secure a solid platform of the piece, relying on pace out wide to give them forward momentum. With a less than typically exciting backline to challenge Andy Farrell’s defensive strategies, if England can outmuscle the Wallaby pack, the game is there for the taking.
In the back row, Michael Hooper will be the only traditional ‘fetcher’ that takes to the Twickenham field, with Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood both facing a mammoth task to stop him slowing England’s attacking play. If they can stall his work at the breakdown and Vunipola can take the ball forward so that Farrell can put his strike runners into space on the gainline, the game is ours.
England by 5
England: Mike Brown, Chris Ashton, Joel Tomkins, Billy Twelvetrees, Marland Yarde, Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson, Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (capt), Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler, David Wilson, Dave Attwood, Ben Morgan, Ben Youngs, Toby Flood, Ben Foden.
Australia: Israel Folau , Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, Nick Cummins, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, James Slipper, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander, Sitaleki Timani, James Horwill, Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper, Ben Mowen (capt).
Replacements: Saia Fainga’a, Benn Robinson, Sekope Kepu, Kane Douglas, Ben McCalman, Nic White, Christian Leali’ifano, Bernard Foley.