After four weeks of scintillating rugby action, the autumn international window slams shut, but not before a grand finale featuring England and Australia. While Ireland have deprived this match of its status as a Grand Slam decider for the Wallabies, England have the opportunity to stretch their winning record to fourteen matches – equaling the record set by the legendary 2003 team. Australia will also know that a victory would see them leapfrog England in the word rankings into second place.
The head to head between these two sides is extremely close, with Australia narrowly leading 25-21. Although England have won the last 3 matches, Australia will remember their last meeting at Twickenham which dumped England out of the World Cup (although most England fans I’ve met have assured me there was definitely no World Cup last year so take that with a pint of salt).
In team news, the big story is that Billy Vunipola has been ruled out following knee surgery and is likely to be absent until the end of next year’s Six Nations, a huge loss for England, but an equally huge opportunity for his replacement to challenge for the number 8 position. On the wing, Marland Yarde replaces the suspended Elliott Daly. For Australia, sighs of relief were heard when Cheika decided to drop Dean Mumm following his sin-binning against Ireland last weekend, being replaced by Lopeti Timani with David Pocock shifting to number 7. Scrum-half Will Genia has ben recalled to Stade Français, so Nick Phipps dons the number 9 shirt. Rory Arnold has been omitted from the squad.
With the style of rugby these two teams have played over the past month, expect this game to be a cracker. England and Australia have both adopted expansive attractive styles, and the historic nature of the rivalry will mean both teams are fired up for the occasion. Jones has highlighted the set piece as being key this weekend. Australia have dominated possession during this tour and any opportunity to steal the ball will need to be taken. Eddie Jones has been highly critical of the Australian scrum, much to the chagrin of Michael Cheika, so the psychological battle has already begun in this area. Aside from that, England will be looking to get the ball out wide quickly as they have done so well this series. England have adopted a wide formation under Jones, with the first receiver from the ruck often being considerably further away than is usual in international rugby which allows England to move the ball across the pitch quickly and efficiently. In Jonny May, who will hopefully end his short career at flanker, they have a winger who has the pace and the cutting edge ruthlessness to finish off moves that will be key at the weekend. They also have a sheer determination not to lose that was evidenced in their win against Argentina at the weekend. Their confidence is one of their greatest assets, and if they can draw on that belief that they can win then it is incredibly hard to stop them.
For Australia, there is that ever present problem of converting pressure into points. In the 2nd test against England last summer, they had over 70% possession but it only yielded a meager 7 points. Against New Zealand it was a similar story. They should look to always take some points from any time spent in England territory instead of being fixated on scoring tries. Keep the scoreboard ticking over and ramp up the pressure- eventually your opponents will crack and leave space for you to score. The Wallabies will also be looking to their impressive backs to power over the line. Israel Folau can have a huge impact and Tevita Kuridrani has been excellent this autumn. Add Bernard Foley to the mix and Australia have the tools to pick open England’s defense. If Foley can dictate play to the same level that he did against Wales and Scotland then Australia can really take control of this game and force England to play on their terms.
England certainly have the belief to take them past Australia, and will call on their experience from the summer tour to give them confidence. It has been a joy to watch England spear-head the Northern Hemisphere revival following last years World Cup, with Ireland, Scotland and Italy all improving considerably along with them, and a year unbeaten would be a fitting reward for this team. However, Australia have the quality to cause all sorts of havoc at Twickenham and the opportunity to crush the England party will surely be motivation enough to play to their maximum potential.