The Wallabies’ downfall began with a 3-0 whitewash on home soil by England in 2016 – and it will take victory against Eddie Jones’s side at Twickenham this weekend to show Australia are truly on the road to recovery.
The Wallabies returned from the 2015 World Cup on a high after reaching the final against the All Blacks, but England quickly brought them back down to earth. It all went downhill from there.
Falling to seventh in the world, their lowest ever ranking, the Wallabies were knocked out of the 2019 World Cup by England in the quarter-final, which resulted in the sacking of Michael Cheika, who lost all seven of the Tests he coached against Jones, his old Randwick teammate.
Under new coach Dave Rennie, the Wallabies showed signs of a turnaround when they beat world champions South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship during a five-Test winning streak, but their momentum was interrupted by the last weekend’s 15-13 loss to Scotland.
The Wallabies now have to beat England to prove their loss at Murrayfield was a blip and that they have not suffered a relapse.
The current England side are not exactly on fire at the moment, winning only two games in this year’s Six Nations, finishing fifth, ahead of only Italy, but home ground advantage will be important with England winning six at their last eight Tests against the Wallabies at Twickenham.
There are a lot of new faces in England’s squad, but this is one Test Jones will be determined to win. Anyone who attended the former Wallabies coach’s tearful media conference in Sydney following his sacking in 2005 will realise just how much the job meant to him.
Jones was sacked after the Wallabies lost eight of his last nine Tests in charge. One of those defeats was a 26-16 loss to England at Twickenham, which saw the demolition of the Australian scrum.
If the Wallabies’ poor scrummaging against Scotland was any indication, they could be facing a similar fate on Sunday following the loss of tight-head props Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou with concussion.
Veteran prop James Slipper has played tight-head in the past, but he has a strong preference for loose-head, while Angus Bell is still a rookie. Former Western Force prop Ollie Hoskins was called up from London Irish to make an unexpected Test debut off the bench.
The Wallabies’ set-pieces must be solid or England will accumulate points through penalty goals and gain field position to launch their attack. Not only that, if the Australian set-pieces collapse, the rest of their game will suffer.
France-based second-rower Rory Arnold stabilised a shaky Wallabies lineout against Scotland, but he will compete against three genuine jumping options in the English line.
The Wallabies can expect England to hit them hard at the breakdown. Jones will know that Rennie places a lot of emphasis on this aspect of the game and, no doubt, will try to beat him to the punch, so to speak.
Wallabies attack coach Scott Wisemantel, who has worked for Jones with both sides, is hip to all of his former mentor’s tricks, but he has his own problems getting the backline firing without Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete, who have said sayonara to Australia for the time being, at least.
The Wallabies’ attack lacked fluidity against Scotland. There is plenty of raw talent in the backline, but they need to keep it simple, know when to take the tackle and recycle the ball rather than trying to force a flick pass.
The selection of France-based Kurtley Beale at fullback will provide the Wallabies’ attack with more variety and return Andrew Kellaway to the wing where he was so effective in the Rugby Championship.
Ultimately, it was the Wallabies’ ill-discipline and lack of composure that cost them against Scotland and that has to be addressed. Critics may argue French referee Romain Poite was pedantic, handing out some highly technical penalties against Australia, but if that is the way the rules are being interpreted, a team has to adapt.
While the Wallabies only played well in patches against Scotland, they could have led 24-7 at half-time rather than trailing 7-3 if they had been more patient and accurate, which is what they will need to be against England.
To beat the English at Twickenham, a team has to be able to move their big forward pack around the field. Without Cooper, the Wallabies have struggled to execute Rennie’s kicking strategy.
But it might be worth remembering that in 2012, with Beale at five-eighth, the Wallabies executed a kicking game-plan that resulted in a 20-14 win against England, their last success at Twickenham outside the 2015 World Cup.
With just one more Test remaining – against Six Nations champions Wales on Sunday week – a loss to England will see the Wallabies’ tour deemed a failure, but a win will put Australia in a position to have a successful campaign.
In many ways the Wallabies are a team trying to escape the past. If they want to put the past behind them, they must bury the ghosts of England.