A week after being humiliated by France, Australia rediscovered their true character and lifted their game as they always seem to against England to secure a spirited and fully deserved 20-14 victory at Twickenham on Saturday.
Looking far more like the team who ended New Zealand’s winning run last month rather than the one thrashed 33-6 in Paris last week, the Wallabies yet again showed that they are at their best when everyone is writing them off.
Superior in every department, not least the scrum where England had been expected to dominate, they had to defend for long periods in the last quarter, but were well worth the win.
England, looking for a third successive victory over their big sporting rivals, piled on the pressure, but paid a heavy price for trying to run kickable penalties as organized and aggressive Australian defending kept them at bay.
“We spoke about character and resolve and we had something to prove tonight,” Australia captain Nathan Sharpe said. “There were times when we had a lot of attack, but what won us the game was probably that 20 to 30 minutes on our tryline when we forced a lot of turnovers.”
England, hoping to build on last week’s 54-12 thumping of Fiji, were second-best in most areas and again made basic mistakes when in promising positions.
“We put a lot of pressure on them and we didn’t come away with points when we needed to,” England coach Stuart Lancaster said. “We have got to take those points when we are in the red zone.”
After again starting slowly, England did well to earn nine points from three Toby Flood penalties, while Berrick Barnes dropped a goal and scored one penalty to keep things tight.
The game then exploded into life in the last five minutes of the first half, with a try apiece.
A poor clearance kick by Danny Care was scooped up by livewire Wallaby scrumhalf Nick Phipps, who scorched through two tackles before timing his pass perfectly to send winger Nick Cummins in for his first international try.
Care quickly made amends though when, having been awarded a very kickable penalty, he opted for a quick tap and that led to Manu Tuilagi scoring in the corner.
Flood missed the touchline conversion, but England were delighted to turn round 14-11 ahead having been on the back foot for most of the half, not least in the scrum, where the return of prop Ben Alexander was key for the visitors.
Australia were quickest out of the blocks again in the second half, as three Barnes penalties edged them ahead — all coming after England struggled to deal with clever chipped kicks.
Barnes was full of energy and ideas, while the running of center Ben Tapuai and the crisp passing of the whole backline kept Australia on top.
England, playing in their garish new cerise strip, finally got the ball as the introduction of prop Mako Vunipola and lock Joe Launchbury added some extra power.
However, the decision to turn down easy penalties misfired twice, when their tap-and-go moves came to nothing in the face of some furious defending as Australia held out for the win.
“We weren’t clinical enough and some great chances went begging,” England captain Chris Robshaw said.
“We need to be clinical against the best teams — if you get a chance you have to take it,” he added.
England now face South Africa and New Zealand, almost certainly needing to win both matches to secure a top-four seeding for the Dec. 3 draw for the 2015 World Cup.
Australia now face Italy next weekend before finishing a long season against Wales.
In other matches, it was:
‧ France 39, Argentina 22
‧ Ireland 53, Fiji 0
‧ New Zealand 42, Italy 10
‧ South Africa 21, Scotland 10