England must make Wallabies lives hell

England must make Wallabies lives hell

England take on Australia on Saturday seeking to equal their all-time record of 14 consecutive victories, set by the team that would go on to win the 2003 World Cup.

They are also seeking a 13th straight win since Eddie Jones took charge, and an unbeaten 2016.

In his final column for BBC Sport as he enters the final stages of his rehabilitation after long-term injury, England flanker James Haskell looks at the talking points.

England have had some of their best games against Australia over the years and some nail-biting wins.

I think back to that last-gasp winner from Dan Luger in 2000, when he got on the end of Iain Balshaw's chip to score the winning try after eight minutes of injury time - it doesn't get much more dramatic than that.

Australia are a highly skilled team but they also bring plenty of physicality, as we experienced on tour this summer.

We may have won all three games but after we had the physical edge in the first Test, they were very abrasive in the next two matches - there were plenty of flare-ups.

They have some great individual players.

Israel Folau is one of the best athletes you will ever see. I look at him and wish I had some of his genes so I could do some of the things he does - he's got great pace, sublime handling skills and is such a graceful runner.

The 6ft 5in Folau glides over the ground with his huge strides disguising his pace

Folau is one of a number of rugby league players who have made an impact with the Wallabies over the past decade.

I like rugby league and when I was playing Super Rugby and living down south I watched Australia's National Rugby League (NRL), and everyone loves State of Origin.

I was always struck by how impressive the skill levels of players like Benji Marshall, Shaun Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck are.

You get more time and space in rugby league to produce those skills and I think it makes a difference when you grow up playing league, because you get the chance to learn and execute them as you have that little bit more time on the ball.

I talked to Sam Burgess when he was playing union and he explained the work-rate involved, because they're making 30 tackles and 20 to 30 carries, and because there's more time and space it's such a different game to union.

I think he found it frustrating that union defences are so well drilled, and there is so little space. You also just don't get the same number of carries as you do in league.

I would love to have gone over there and played in the NRL - if they decided I was up to it - and I always asked Sam Burgess if [South Sydney Rabbitohs co-owner] Russell Crowe was interested in signing me. I'm still waiting for the call back. I am sure it will be any day now…

Since the game went professional I am kind of surprised so few people have gone over from union to give the NRL a go as it's an attractive game and so big in Australia.

I guess that for the level of player likely to give it a go, it would mean giving up international rugby union, and that's always going to be the biggest stage in the game.

I am sure someone will make the transition at some point. Sadly it's too late for me. I am trying to learn to play union again, let alone learn to play another game.

My Wasps colleague Nathan Hughes gets his first England start on Saturday, in place of the injured Billy Vunipola at number eight.

They are different players in a number of ways, but both are known for their supreme carrying power.

Billy has quickly become a world-class number eight and although Nathan is right up there on his day, it's a lot to expect him to be thrown into Test rugby and immediately hit those heights.

The public and media always clamour for players to get immediate exposure at international level, but they never appreciate that it's such a tough step up, and takes most mortal players time to adjust, although there are exceptions of course.

I love the way Nathan plays, he tramples over opposition defenders seemingly at will and carries the ball in one hand like it's a loaf of bread.

The other change sees Marland Yarde hold off the challenge of Semesa Rokoduguni to replace the suspended Elliot Daly on the wing.

I am told there's been a lot of debate among fans as to which of the two players they want to see starting on Saturday.

Having worked on TV for the past few weeks, I have been able to watch closely how England and other teams have been playing. Sadly fans only see the tries and big hits. They don't see the little details, the mistakes and positives that actually decide whether players get selected or not.

All I can say is I wouldn't like to be defending against either of them, one on one, in a few metres of space…

Matching England's greats

Equalling England's all-time winning run of 14 games on Saturday would be a huge achievement but it won't have been talked about much by the players.

They will be worrying about their performance and will leave it up to the media to hype it up.

This week, World Cup-winning England captain Martin Johnson was complimentary about the current team and it's great that someone of his stature would come out and say that.

It's very difficult to compare the two sides because they were world champions for a reason.

They had world-class players like Johnno, Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson, they were winning for a long time and they were very consistent - it is something the current team can aspire to and use as motivation.

Players ignore any 'mind games'

The 'mind games' between rival coaches Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika are not something the players take much notice of.

With the media stuff it's something you hear third-hand when you're having a coffee and someone might mention it.

But as for what they've been saying, all professional sportspeople try to steal a march on their opponents.

When it comes to scrums I joke about just putting my head down and pushing but there's a lot that goes into it, and a lot of it is about countering what the other side are doing.

I've been on the side of scrums when the opposition prop hinges from the hips, it looks like my prop's dropped it, and we get penalised.

If the coach can bring the referee's attention to something like that then they'll look at it more closely - they're only human.

It can be counterproductive though, as they might focus on things you'd rather they didn't.

Scrums will always be a contentious area, and as I have said before props like to make it sound more complicated than it is.

It's like they are all part of a secret society like the Magic Circle, where they all meet up and agree to make it really tricky for outsiders to understand, so they can continue to be some of the highest-paid players in the world.

I have tried to get into the club, but I don't have 18in studs or understand what boring in means.

Closing down Australia's wide game

Tries from Michael Hooper and Folau gave Australia a 10-0 lead in the first Test in June, before England took control

Saturday is going to be a hard-fought game - they always are with Australia.

The set-piece battle - the scrum and the line-out - is going to be closely contested, as is the driving game from the pack, while there will be plenty of physicality in defence.

Last week, England shut down the Argentina attack when they tried to go wide and that is a good sign because in the first Test in the summer, in Brisbane, when Australia went 'wide wide' they found us out on the edges.

That happens for a number of reasons.

Firstly people over-commit to the breakdown, which leaves you men down in the defensive line.

People not filling the space quickly enough is also an issue, as is not getting enough line speed as you come up to defend and close down their space.

Then there's the class of the Wallaby attack. They often pass to a back very deep and that gives them a lot of space to attack, and you a lot of space to defend, so you've got to push up and close them down.

You will also see guys getting off the floor as quickly as they can to get back in the game.

Given the threat of the Australian backs, England will have focused on defending out wide and will have identified the threats, so hopefully we won't see them getting round the outside again.

Tackle, tackle, tackle again

We won the second Test in the summer because of a massive defensive performance.

Games like that, when you are defending for so much of the time, feel different to regular games.

It's a mixture of confidence, because you are going so well defensively, and nervousness because you can make 50 tackles but if you miss one they can be right back in the game. You feel both calm and anxious at the same time.

It's important when you don't have the ball to celebrate every little win, whether that is a big hit, turnover or smart bit of play. Maro Itoje is the king of that, at one point he whooped so hard he was shaking.

So who's going to win?

Tempers frayed in the summer - will we see a similarly testy encounter on Saturday?

I expect Saturday's game to be more like the third June Test, which was much more open.

It will start with real intensity but then we should see both teams looking to attack.

Australia's back row, with Michael Hooper and David Pocock dovetailing so well, is very dangerous and they can cause opponents lots of problems.

For me, they are still the most dangerous pairing out there. You deal with one, and the other pops up causing trouble.

It is interesting to see Nick Phipps at scrum-half - he is a very fiery character on the pitch.

He has a speedy service and the quality of his delivery to Bernard Foley - who is a very good 10 on his day but produced a mixed bag in the summer - will be a big factor in how Australia perform.

The England boys will want to put pressure on them, because they are heartbeat of the Wallaby team, and make their lives a living hell.

They will need to feel that every time they look up they have a Tom Wood, George Kruis or Nathan Hughes breathing down their necks

England will win, but I'm not one for making score predictions. The BBC Sport users might like to do so below though, or you can let me know your verdict on Twitter.

James Haskell was talking to BBC Sport's James Standley


– Entry was posted on December 3rd, 2016 by James Haskell
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