Whether England like it or not, the success or otherwise of their autumn campaign as a whole all hinges on the result against Australia.
In reality, they’ve done significantly better than a lot of people thought they would after six defeats in seven games prior to November and a defeat doesn’t mean the end of the world but, there’s no getting away from it, this result will dictate whether people are looking ahead to the Six Nations with a sense of positivity or looking back and putting a negative spin on things.
Eddie Jones has spoken about the English way of playing and being excited about the style of play that his side is going to show moving forwards but, if I’m honest, I can’t really define how England play at the moment in terms of a clear strategy.
Hopefully we’ll see some more evidence of it against the Wallabies, especially in attack, but I’d settle for a win of any kind over a coming out on the wrong side of an 80-point thriller.
All three of England’s autumn Tests have been a game of two halves. They were dominated in the first half against the Springboks and awful against Japan before half-time but turned both games around in the second half and the opposite was true against the All Blacks.
Last week against Japan they were rudderless until Owen Farrell came on and the scoreline flattered them in the end but they were trying things behind the scenes, as well as on the pitch, in preparation for the World Cup and that can all be forgotten if they end the autumn on a high.
It did expose George Ford, who struggled again to boss the game without another figure like an Owen Farrell or a Matt Toomua alongside him, and there were things to learn from the game but they’ll want to put it behind them and move on.
With the injuries England have and the performances so far this autumn, there weren’t too many selection dilemmas or discussion points this week but Jamie George starting at hooker jumps out from the team sheet.
He deserves a run of starts after being the country’s form hooker for a long time and this feels like a watershed moment as he’s preferred to Hartley for the first time against a tier one nation.
He’s still named Hartley as a co-captain, despite the fact that he’s on the bench, but that’s a gimmick and it feels like a changing of the guard in terms of the captaincy as well.
I know he’s not in the squad and there’s been enough written about that already but the lack of cover at 15 makes it even harder to understand why Danny Cipriani isn’t on the bench on Saturday because he can genuinely cover there as well as fly half.
The sickness in the Wallabies camp won’t have helped their preparation, and the withdrawal of David Pocock is a massive blow to them but as the English we should have learned over the years never to underestimate Australia.
The omission of Kurtley Beale from the match day 23 is a surprising one and picking Matt Toomua at 10 and Bernard Foley at 12 is an interesting decision but I don’t think that’ll affect them too much as the pair of them will interchange a lot.
It does tell us that Cheika is struggling to settle on who he goes for in the most important position in the team, though. He experimented with Beale at fly half for a few games in the Rugby Championship, which didn’t work, and he’s still scratching around.
Whether it’s Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson, Johnny Sexton and the list goes on, every really successful team I can remember has had a number 10 who is the absolute fulcrum of the side and that would be the main concern for Australia.
They know their season finishes after today and it will be a case of one final push before hitting the beach but the last game of the autumn is always tough for the Southern Hemisphere sides as their energy reserves have just about been emptied.
This is their 10th Test in the last three months so it’s been a long stretch for them. I’ve been in that position as a player when you’re at the end of your tether and almost can’t wait for the season to end but there’s nothing like a clash with England to encourage them to raise themselves one last time.
Sam Underhill had a huge game against the All Blacks and his battle with Michael Hooper, who has been one of the best opensides in the game for a number of years, will be one of the key battles as far as determining which team will come out on top.
England have won their last five games against Australia since the crushing disappointment at the 2015 World Cup and there is an expectation now that these games will end in victory.
Hopefully England can put in a good performance but we’re less than a year out from the World Cup and it’s about winning games now. It’s all about the result. If they beat Australia, it’s been a positive autumn. Winning is a habit and England need to get back in the habit.
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