England bring Cheika’s Wallabies down the only way he’d have it — without a Plan B

Rugby

OITA — This Rugby World Cup had long been predicted to be a power game.

And on the day when then tournament really began, with the commencement of the knockout phase, that’s exactly what transpired. The southern hemisphere blueprint of ball-in-hand attacking rugby, long championed by Australia and particularly Michael Cheika, crashed and burned one last time in the Wallabies coach’s tenure.

It was undone by a brutally physical and fantastically organized England defence that turned up ruck after ruck and scrambled heroically, and then stung the Wallabies with ruthless precision when the Australians invited them to do so.

That brought the thousands of England fans, all clad in white, to their feet while Swing Low Sweet Chariot rang out in far greater voice than Waltzing Matilda ever did. The Australians did their best to rally the Wallabies but they must have known their boys were up against it when England repelled the very first wave of attack, which lasted 18 phases and ended with an England scrum.

Later, on the hour, England’s defensive set on their own line was tremendous. The Wallabies threw phase after phase at England in search of a try after a surging run from Isi Naisarani off the back of a scrum had England backpedaling. But when the ball was ripped away and booted downfield more than 10 phases later, and a Will Genia knock-on soon followed, England players threw their fists in the air with delight.

England hadn’t yet won the match, which at that stage they led by 11 points, but they had repelled what would prove to be Australia’s last real roll of the dice. The winning margin would be 24 points in the end.

This was a defensive performance as good as any from the tournament, the kind of which wins World Cups. England finished the match with an 88 percent tackling efficiency having been asked to make 181 tackles. That was 103 more than Australia, who could only manage an 85 percent return. Incredible.

“Particularly the first 20 minutes we really had to dig in,” England coach Eddie Jones said. “They had a lot of possession, 75, 77 percent [it was 64% by the end of the match]and they were attacking well, had field position; it was an important part of the game because we know if they got out a bit there, they’re a front-running team.

“So we hung in there, we got a bit of momentum back and took our opportunities well and went into halftime in a good position. But then we made a couple of mistakes after halftime that let them back in the game. But what I was really impressed by [with] the players was their ability to refocus and reset after we had a problem in the game and that’s a great development of the team and a great job by Owen [Farrell] as captain.”

Defensively supreme, England were also ruthless in their attacking execution. Gifted two first-half opportunities by the Wallabies, Jones’ side nailed them both through two tries scored by Jonny May.

Then, in the second half, a flat bullet of a pass from Farrell found a bullet train-like recipient — albeit a more rotund one — in Kyle Sinckler, the England prop thundering through the Australian defence to run 15 metres to score after shaking off Kurtley Beale.

Knockout rugby is about taking your opportunities and England followed that brief under the roof in Oita perfectly.

It’s also about having a Plan B when perhaps the strategy you have been drilling in on the training paddock for weeks, even months, isn’t working. Australia, under Cheika, haven’t had one for a long time. And they certainly didn’t on Saturday evening either.

“That’s the way we play footy,” a gutted Cheika said of his side’s game plan. “I’m not going to go to a kick-and-defend game; maybe call me naive but that’s not what we’re going to do. I’d rather win our way. That’s the way Aussies want us to play.”

Sure, some may admire Cheika’s desire to play a game that entertains. But it can’t always be as successful as it was for Japan last weekend against Scotland, or for Australia against the All Blacks in Perth earlier this year, and it certainly wasn’t going to beat England in this huge quarterfinal. Truth be told, it has only worked sparingly for Australia since the last World Cup. They have never really evolved.

Australia could have at the very least come armed with a better exit strategy, indeed any exit strategy at all.

Three Christian Lealiifano penalties had kept them in the game at halftime — despite it being the widest margin they had faced at the break in their six straight losses to England under Jones — but each time they went back to field an England restart they bobbled the clearance and brought their opponents straight onto the attack.

There is attacking from your own half, and there is attacking under your own posts, while the game is in its infancy. There were also cross-field chips inside their own 22 or dribbling little box kicks that were neither here nor there; the Wallabies did all that and paid the price repeatedly.

Chasing the game is a different story, but even when the Wallabies attempted that a huge Kurtley Beale cut-out pass was picked off by Anthony Watson for one last celebratory try for England.

It seemed apt. Here was one team desperately sticking to the approach of a failed strategy, and here was the other knowing it was coming and pouncing immediately.

Due to Typhoon Hagibis last weekend, England’s final pool match against France was cancelled. It meant they come into this quarterfinal having had only three pool games, all of which offered no real match preparation for a game of this magnitude, yet they came out in Oita and set about their processes superbly with the knowledge their game plan was as sound as ever.

The Wallabies certainly had their moments, the best of which was a brilliantly-taken try from Marika Koroibete and a superb first start at centre from Jordan Petaia. While David Pocock and Michael Hooper had some success at the breakdown in the first half, the Wallabies pack was largely dominated by an England forward unit that will take some stopping by New Zealand in next week’s semifinal.

And they were led superbly by skipper Farrell. As well as his brilliant ball to Sinckler, Farrell made 17 of his team’s 181 tackles and, more importantly, nailed all eight of his shots at goal, several of which were from out by the touchline.

The 24-point defeat will without doubt bring down the curtain on Cheika’s Wallabies career, though the Australian wouldn’t be drawn into announcing his resignation at the post-match press conference.

“I’ll be honest, it’s a cruel, cruel world when you’re asking those question two minutes after we’ve been knocked out of the World Cup,” Cheika said. “And if you’d find it inside you to find a little bit of compassion for people who are hurting, to ask relevant questions, because I tell you, for me, I came here with only one thought in my mind about winning here. And that thought’s just disappeared now, not 15, 20 minutes ago.”

The Wallabies’ loss also brings to a close to the international days of Will Genia, Pocock and Lealiifano, while Rory Arnold is headed off overseas.

But it is nothing but good news for the Australian who sat in the opposite coach’s box on Saturday night.

Jones’ side was humming in Oita and they will head to Yokohama confident they can do so again. England are playing a power game that rugby’s Test cycle has once again found its way to, and only the All Blacks seem capable of rolling with that tide. How apt that the two nations should meet next Saturday.

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