The hosts have been thrown out of their own party. If England’s class of 2011 disgraced itself off the field in New Zealand, precipitating a cultural revolution that led to a former Leeds schoolteacher replacing the man who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 as head coach, this year’s model was like certain German cars, containing parts that should not have been be there.
Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team sat looking down at the floor when Owen Farrell received a yellow card 10 minutes from the end for an act of petulance that in part explained why England have failed to live up to the high standard set in the pool of death, perhaps in the hope of a sink hole opening up and taking them away. Thousands of spectators left the ground well before the end but some of those who remained booed Lancaster when he appeared on the big screen for his post-match interview; no dreams had been shattered more rudely than those of a diligent, dignified man whose chief misfortune was to be locked in a group with two countries whose greater experience was enhanced by coaches used to laying roads with silver.
Wales and Australia qualified for the quarter-finals with a round of matches to go in a pool that was expected to be so close that it might come down to points difference. In a sense it did because the points of difference between them and England were considerable, not least the ability to react quickly in open play when the unexpected happened or opportunities were created. The hosts had a couple of slick moves behind from set pieces but lacked the skills of an Australia team who a year ago were in disarray before Michael Cheika took over as head coach.
Australia were overpowered here last November but from the first scrum in this game they showed that were cut from a different, more durable cloth. David Pocock held sway at the breakdown, as expected, backed up by the flanker Michael Hooper, as a flurry of England attacks in the opening half an hour ended with turnovers of basic mistakes, but a team whose front rows had been reduced to eating grass here for much of the last decade, never mind the 2007 World Cup quarter-final in Marseille, exacted their revenge when victory mattered to England the most.
The try scored by Matt Giteau with the last play of the game, a flowing move down the right that took Australia to their biggest victory here over England, summed up one of the differences that Cheika has made. Last year’s tour of Europe made him realise that his squad was short of depth and, in certain areas, quality. Giteau, like others, including the second-row Kane Douglas and the wing Drew Mitchell, had been off limits to Australia because they were earning their livings abroad. Cheika ensured a couple of rules were tweaked and Giteau, who came on as a replacement during the 2003 World Cup final, played a crucial role, a foil for Bernard Foley. The fly-half was a suspected weak link in the Australia team but his 28 points included two tries that were another illustration of the gulf in class between the teams, and his value was shown at the one point in the game when England were fuelled by almost as much expectation as hope, when they reduced the deficit to seven points with 15 minutes to go.
Australia were, if not rattled, rattling, but England had by then virtually emptied their bench and most of the players they had based their gameplan around were sitting on the sidelines. They were soon joined by Owen Farrell, who received a yellow card for wiping out Giteau off the ball, fortunate Romain Poite, who refereed what was in front of him all night, did not reach for red.
Farrell had earlier shown Chris Robshaw’s folly in not going for the draw against Wales the previous week with a late penalty by landing a conversion from wide on the right – a result that would have left them with a chance of qualifying for the last eight at Wales’s expense, even after this defeat.
Now Poite asked the television match official to look at Sam Burgess’s high tackle on Hooper and noticed Farrell’s act of petulance. For a calm executor of a gameplan and a formidably accurate goal-kicker, there is a point where Farrell and his senses part company, usually when defeat or a setback is looming and he cannot control his frustration.
His act summed up England who, for the second week running, were not as mentally hard as their opponents. Mike Brown had lost his head here against Wales but, instead of looking for it, he continued to operate without it, conceding a lineout early on and living less on the edge as falling over it. Like Farrell, a player with the skills to compare with the best players in his position does not have the temperament to match.
Brown’s early blunder created the position from which Foley landed the first of his seven kicks out of seven. England had started with some well-executed set piece moves, a triangular formation in midfield initially foxing Australia, but it was the Wallabies’ ability to react in open play that marked them out: Foley’s first try, after Israel Folau, otherwise subdued on the night, ran through Robshaw, came after he noticed Ben Youngs had drifted too wide and cut inside the scrum-half and Joe Launchbury before wrongfooting Brown.
His second, after a neat exchange of passes with Kurtley Beale, gave Australia a 17-3 lead. The crowd booed when Dan Cole’s mistake ended an attack four minutes from the end of the first half and, when Australia extended their lead with a Foley penalty, from a scrum, it looked over.
England kept coming, as they had to, and the opportunism of Watson, together with Farrell’s boot suggested a comeback like that of the previous November against South Africa, when 6-20 became 20-20. That comeback was ended by an act of indiscipline, Dylan Hartley being sent to the sin-bin for kicking out at Duane Vermeulen, and so it was with 10 minutes to go against Australia, the yellow of Farrell and England contrasting with the yellow and green of Australia.
The Rugby Football Union is unlikely to react hastily to the ultimate humiliation, nor should it given the unprecedented difficulty of the pool, and should consider an independent review of the World Cup campaign to give itself time, as New Zealand did in 2007 before deciding to retain Graham Henry and his coaches. If Lancaster does stay on, he should look at Cheika and Wales’s Warren Gatland and think about the saying that nice guys finish last. He needs to be seen to be in charge.
England Brown, Watson, Joseph, Barritt (Burgess 65), May (Ford 41), Farrell, B Youngs (Wigglesworth 50), Marler (Vunipola 50), T Youngs (Webber 61), Cole (Brookes 55), Launchbury (Kruis 70), Parling, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan (Easter 58) Sin-bin Farrell 71 Tries Watson Cons Farrell Pens Farrell 2.
Australia Folau (Toomua 66), Ashley-Cooper, Kuridrani, Giteau, Horne, Foley, Genia (Phipps 61), Sio (Slipper 58), Moore (Polota-Nau 65), Kepu (Holmes 58), Douglas, Simmons (Mumm 66), Fardy (McCalman 76), Hooper, Pocock TriesFoley 2, Giteau Cons Foley 3 Pens Foley 4
Twickenham 81,010 Referee Romain Poite (France) Game rating 7/10