To slightly paraphrase American journalist Heywood Broun: “Sport doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”
And while Broun was primarily talking about mental fortitude, the identity of Stuart Lancaster’s England was firmly exposed by a fantastic Australian performance.
It will be somewhat of a fitting epitaph to Lancaster’s regime, should he lose his job, that the final try was scored by Matt Giteau, a Toulon player who the ARU relaxed selection rules to enable him to play in Michael Cheika’s squad.
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Lancaster, both to his credit and detriment, steadfastly endorsed such a move to get Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage into his set-up. Instead, the England head coach persevered with a disjointed back row with captain Chris Robshaw – a No6 by trade – as openside.
Fitting too then that David Pocock and Michael Hooper should make such a mockery of it. Totally dominating the breakdown with turnover after turnover, destroying any foundations England were hoping to build.
Just 12 months ago the Wallabies were in disarray following Ewen McKenzie’s shock resignation as head coach. Eight of the 15 that started at Twickenham were in the side for McKenzie’s last game, a 29-28 defeat to New Zealand.
Despite retaining half a team, it’s further testament to Cheika’s work in such a short space of time that 1999 World Cup winner Joe Roff remarked on OSN Sport it was the most complete performance by an Australia side in recent memory.
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It was a bold call to leave out the likes of Christian Leali’ifano, James Horwill, Wycliff Palu and Dave Dennis from his selection; experienced individuals with known international pedigree.
But Cheika has built a team of its own identity and with his coaching experience in Italy, Ireland and France as well as Australia, it’s a side with a bit of everything.
Australia haven’t had a consistent No10 since the days of Stephen Larkham, yet Cheika, drawing on his three seasons working with Bernard Foley at the Waratahs, clearly knows how to get the best out of the 26-year-old. With two stunning tries against England and 28 points it was, by some margin, his best display in a Wallaby jersey.
“The scrum” is traditionally the two words that follow a question regarding any glaring weaknesses in any Australian team. Time and time again, for all their backline ingenuity, they’ve been exposed up front. Not any more. Mario Ledesma has done the seemingly impossible and turned the green and gold pack into a scrummaging machine. They obliterated England.
In a northern hemisphere World Cup, a team is unlikely to emerge as champions without a solid base. As obvious as it sounds, Cheika knew that and has addressed it.
The return of Pocock from long-term injury did present a selection headache but Cheika has managed to work both him and Hooper into his backrow. They were everything England weren’t at the breakdown: committed, disciplined and clever.
Up until July, Hooper was Australia captain. Yet the 23-year-old has happily made way for Stephen Moore with minimum fuss.
In Moore, Hooper, Pocock and Will Genia, a team, often consumed by ego, now has four players who have captained their country, while the likes of Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Dean Mumm, James Slipper and Israel Folau have all either led sides domestically or operated as vice captains.
In short: a team full of character.
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