Humiliated by a 14-man Australia side last week, the Empire struck back in game two with an improved physical performance against a badly wounded and arhythmic Wallabies outfit. In Perth England’s streak of eight straight wins over the Wallabies was snapped. In Brisbane it was Australia’s fortress for 10 consecutive victories that was razed. The Ella-Mobbs series is square, the battle rolls on.
If an opening ceremony of didgeridoos, clapsticks and an anthem sung in the local Yugambeh language inspired the home team it didn’t show. England strolled on to the field but shot from the blocks. They bounced the Wallabies captain in the opening charge, concussed their full-back, crossed the stripe through Billy Vunipola, stole a lineout and slotted a penalty all within the first 10 minutes. It was a flurry of blows Australia – and for once, the Wallaby captain, Michael Hooper – never recovered from.
The Wallabies were out enthused from the get-go. After their first and only try, the England enforcer Ellis Genge rose from the rubble and thumped Hooper’s Indigenous jersey as if to say: we’re back. Genge and the newly returned opposing tighthead Taniela Tupou had traded barbs in the lead-up but the Australian champion’s lack of action since April was immediately on show as he gave away a series of penalties and his retooled forward pack lost all the early collisions.
In last week’s Perth Test Australia’s talisman Quade Cooper was scratched before the kick-off and then three more frontline players felled in the first half. Their luck didn’t improve in Brisbane with the new No 15 Jordan Petaia staggering off in the very first minute with a terrible concussion, and the replacement back Izaia Perese contributing little more than a soft yellow card for an intercept attempt before the break and then a buckled ACL seconds after his return in the second stanza.
International rugby tests are won in the middle and finished on the flanks. Despite the scoreline, Australia’s giddy, gutsy first Test triumph inspired them to try to do it in reverse, flipping balls infield while back-pedalling and spurning clearances for long looping passes and crabbed movements across field. This was a knife-fight in a phone-booth but the Wallabies were taking crazy brave risks, playing like Globetrotters when they needed the solemn discipline of Gravediggers.
England’s pack were a hot white knife through golden butter. Australia managed to staunch the bleeding at 19-0 but the bruise spread. Every time they erred Farrell’s boot put a shiv between their ribs. Then, with the penalty count 8-1 against, they won one and made it count. A lineout on the 22 and Hunter Paisami broke the line and got it back, Angus Bell bent it and then Tupou, the 130kg wrecking ball, rolled through low and lethal to make it 19-7.
Revived, the Wallabies went to the shed with their tails up. Last week Dave Rennie reset his men by preaching “Brutality, Optimism and Work ethic”. At the kick-off Paisami shrugged Maro Itoje off his shoulder and sent the big man to the grass inert. The tide was turning.
Perese’s injury brought the veteran James O’Connor on, a much-needed injection of calm and experience for a skittery attack. Instead his first actions were a costly failed clearance and a fast inside ball to Marika Korobiete that didn’t come off. England stole back the ascendency with an offside penalty to go up 22-7.
Although Australia scored again – Noah Lolesio finding the flying centre Samu Kerevi for another five-pointer – the mathematics still didn’t add up. At 22-14, Australia were two tries-to-one up but 10 points down.
Even as the Test turned in the home side’s favour, they kept losing troops. The replacement prop Scott Sio went down with a shoulder injury. Then Caderyn Neville’s knee bent inwards at the ruck on the far side and the hulking Nick Frost came on for a long-awaited debut, the 23rd man capped in Rennie’s three-year reign. When Marcus Smith was shown yellow for a deliberate knock-on, Lolesio got close within five and Australia weren’t yet roaring but a low growl could be heard.
As Australia’s bench emptied, England hung on, backing themselves to withstand the assault and return it. Tom Wright busted through the middle, and chipped. He didn’t regather but dragged Farrell over the sideline. But again Australia squandered it when Fainga’a’s throw sailed off centre. England speared downfield, battering the line. Australia withstood the barrage but yielded yet another infringement. Farrell drew back his kicking quiver and delivered the killer blow.
Rennie’s Wallabies were outplayed by Eddie’s avengers – but only just.
Reinforcements will have to be found within a now-decimated squad. Petaia’s concussion opens the door for Banks to move to No 15 and exciting ex-league flier Suliasi Vunivalu to debut in Sydney. Frost will play bigger minutes next week in place of Neville. The powerful Harry Wilson may come in for Rob Leota while Langi Gleeson’s explosive form in Australia A’s win over Fiji may tempt Rennie from the bench.
Honours are even heading into the decider in Sydney next week. The match will be played, for the first time since 1975, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a venerable old battleground where statues of local cricketers – Bradman, Benaud, McCabe and Waugh – stand cast in bronze as monuments to the spiflication of Englishmen. It is both a warning for England and a challenge to Australia. A new trophy and fresh bragging rights to an ancient rivalry are once again up for grabs.