England expect trench warfare
Stuart Lancaster expects the contact area to go a long way towards deciding an extremely tough Test against Australia this Saturday.
Stuart Lancaster expects the contact area to go a long way towards deciding an extremely tough Test against Australia this Saturday and says England will be braced for the Wallabies’ fast-paced attacking patterns.
Lancaster has been a keen observer of the Antipodeans’ progress over the course of this year, watching them lose 1-2 to Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions before a resurgent end to the Rugby Championship under Ewen McKenzie.
Citing the influence of McKenzie and attack coach Jim McKay - a partnership that guided the Queensland Reds to the 2011 Super Rugby title - the England head coach insisted this weekend’s opponents were a settled side that had regathered some precious momentum.
“The DNA of Australia is about being winners in any professional sport - not just rugby, but anything they play internationally,” he said. “They’re a force to be reckoned with and for that, they deserve everyone’s respect.
“If [Kurtley Beale’s] kick went over in the last play of the first [Lions] Test, it becomes a different environment, but since then, the coaching team has changed and the players are clearly playing for them.
“I know Jim McKay well and the qualities he will bring as an attack coach. They’re growing as a force and I think their two recent games [against Argentina and New Zealand] just show how much of a threat they have become.
“They’ve got some very good athletes - on their day, their backline is as good as anyone’s. Their pack includes some very competitive back five forwards and their front row has shown on occasions that they can cause problems for the opposition.
“We know from this time last year that they are a smart side and we need to be at their best to beat them. We didn’t get that right last year - we need to this year.”
Clearly the 14-20 defeat at Twickenham 12 months ago still stings for Lancaster, but he also knows one man who was not among the Australia ranks that day could be rather influential.
Recalled under long-term club mentor McKenzie, flyhalf Quade Cooper has shown sparks of his mercurial best over the past few months and - in partnership with scrumhalf Will Genia - has enough talent to pose a significant threat to England’s defence.
“As an attacking player, he’s outstanding,” he explained. “That is his range of passing, his balance, his footwork, his ability to put people through gaps. His goal-kicking was outstanding at the weekend, too.
“On his day he can be world-class and seems to be in that kind of form at the moment. His partnership with Will Genia is critical for them.
“From a defence point of view, [we need to be wary of them] if they get good line-out ball and scrum ball, they will cause us problems - no doubt about it.
“But our objective is to get our game right. We place emphasis on the opponents but we’re putting our gameplan together and we’ll focus on that - our scrums, our line-outs, our restarts, our attacking intent, our defensive mindset and our game management. That’s what we’ll be focussing on and talking about.”
A traditionally maligned area for Australia in Test rugby has been the scrum - certainly Dan Cole’s dominance was a key factor in a famous win for England in Sydney three years ago.
However, Lancaster downplayed the set-piece, saying that while it is always a central facet of any Test match, England’s physicality at the tackle area will be vital.
“I think [the scrum] is overplayed to be honest. People underestimate the quality of the Australian scrum.
“The contact area is probably more critical to see who gets good quick ball. Whoever gets that will dominate the gainline, dominate possession and dominate the scoreboard.
“The scrum and line-out are important too but that’s what makes rugby special - it’s the component pieces that you’ve got to put together to get a winning performance.”