Haskell heroism aids England to historic Summer Tour success Down Under
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | Updated June 25, 2016
It’s amazing the confidence winning an easy Six Nations Grand Slam can instil in a rugby team like England.
Embarrassed when eliminated at the first hurdle of their own hosted World Cup last autumn, the Red Rose has not only responded by blooming in Europe but now abroad with a historic maiden Tour series victory over Australia.
Under first foreign head coach and former Wallabies boss Eddie Jones, England have catapulted themselves from eighth to second in the rugby world rankings in less than nine months.
Punishing Australian ill-discipline in the initial Brisbane battle, the Red Rose followed up with a magnificent rearguard action in muddy Melbourne on a pitch where scrums proved near impossible. Sydney was a close affair, but the Wallabies will have to was the whitewash from their eyes.
Going in to this summer series, England had won three Tour matches against the Aussies ever. Now the Red Rose have humbled their hosts, putting two record scores on the board.
Fantastic flanker Haskell a hero
This breakthrough for English rugby in the Southern Hemisphere came in no small part down to flanker James Haskell, the undisputed man of the series despite an injury absence from the final Test that proved anything but a dull dead rubber.
Discipline has sometimes been an issue for him, but his massive hits in Brisbane and 21 tackles before being replaced in Melbourne have Haskell established as a brutal back row operator.
One of the major talking points going into the series was how the Red Rose would cope with the breakdown brilliance of Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Men who directly lined up against Haskell.
Breakdown duo broken down
While Hooper crossed twice in vain in the opening Test, Pocock spent the second match sidelined by and looking on through a fractured eye socket. Replacement Sean McMahon, aged just 22, didn’t have the nous when playing the unfamiliar number eight role for the first time.
England needed to match the athleticism and physicality of their hosts; forward pair Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola saw to that, the latter capping his terrific Tour with a try in Sydney.
Since getting the nod from Jones to step up from youth internationals, second row Itoje has been the epitome of his position – a lock for inclusion among Red Rose ranks.
If McMahon found Pocock’s boots too big to fill, awesome specimen Vunipola delivered as billed at number eight for a touring England team that will go down in the annals of rugby history.
Back to the future backfires on Wallabies
Michael Cheika responded to losing in Brisbane by restoring the front row that took the Aussies to the Rugby World Cup final just eight months ago, but to no avail.
Prop duo Sekope Kepu and James Slipper were hauled off early in the second-half, so not even reverting to type could prevent the Wallabies being humbled in their own backyard.
Touring counterpart Dan Cole made an incredible last-ditch try-saving intervention when Australia were over the tryline in Melbourne, but couldn’t ground the ball because of a ruck. Even restoring the second row for a Sydney showdown with the aim of salving wounded Aussie pride failed for Cheika.
Farrell flying, Foley flopping
Wallabies fly half Bernard Foley, perhaps hard done by to see a try chalked off in Brisbane, has kicked penalties as often into touch as over the posts during the series and that arguably arrogant decision-making can certainly be called into question.
Opposite Red Rose number Owen Farrell, meanwhile, has been virtually flawless with his boot Down Under. There’s been the odd miss when going over the posts, but he put the series to bed when grounding a Jamie George chip before converting his own try. In Sydney, more than half of that record 44 points came from Farrell’s foot.
This all adds up to marked and tangible progress under Jones, and simultaneously piles pressure on Cheika with Australia going into the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship off the back of defeat. Wallabies odds of 7/2 with Coral to bounce back and defend that title take some justifying now.
Autumn Internationals on the horizon
New Zealand won their summer series against Wales with a whitewash of their own, while a transitional South Africa under new management had to come from behind to beat patched up Ireland 2-1. The Southern Hemisphere crown thus looks destined to go back to the All Blacks at 1/2.
And what next for England? It’s a real pity the Autumn Internationals do not pair Jones’ jubilant charges with the Kiwis, because a battle between the two best sides in world rugby would be a mouthwatering way to round off a remarkable year. We’ll have to wait until 2018 for that.
The Red Rose will welcome a wounded Australia to Twickenham after pitting themselves against the Springboks, Fiji and Rugby World Cup semi-finalists Argentina. How dangerous will the Wallabies be?
Maybe, just maybe, England can inflict four successive defeats on their eternal sporting rivals, and utterly eradicate memories of World Cup woe.
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