Crunch time is finally upon us.
The World Cup quarter-finals have arrived at long last, and opening the three-week circus of tense, knockout rugby in Japan is a clash between two of the sport’s oldest rivals: England and Australia.
Historically, there is little to separate the English and Wallabies at rugby’s showpiece event.
Six times they have faced off against one another since 1987, and both nations have come away with three wins apiece.
Their most famous meeting undoubtedly came 16 years ago at Telstra Stadium in Sydney, where Jonny Wilkinson etched his name into rugby folklore by slotting a last-minute drop goal in extra-time to secure England with their solitary World Cup crown against the then-reigning titleholders in front of their home crowd.
Fast-forward over a decade-and-a-half later, and it’s difficult to envisage Saturday’s encounter in Oita being anywhere near as tightly-contested as that fateful night in 2003.
Eddie Jones, who coached the Wallabies to that ultimately unsuccessful bid for back-to-back World Cup titles, has jumped ship and moulded England into one of a handful genuine candidates capable of claiming the Webb Ellis Cup in two weeks’ time.
Since his arrival in the United Kingdom following his breakthrough World Cup campaign with Japan four years ago, the 59-year-old has led England’s recovery effort from their dismal showing at their home tournament in 2015 astonishingly well.
A pair of Six Nations titles and a record-equalling winning run of 18 consecutive test victories are two accolades that many critics use to measure Jones’ success by during his tenure at the helm of England, but it’s his unblemished record against his nation of birth which will be the main source of concern for Australia.
Japan have captured the imagination at this World Cup and they have the talent coming through to keep doing so in the years to come
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 18, 2019
Six wins from six outings against the Wallabies since June 2016 have helped England’s rise from World Cup busts to legitimate title contenders as much as it has cemented Australia’s status as one of the falling powerhouses of the international game.
They may be two-time World Cup winners, but Michael Cheika’s side have floundered in the test arena since finishing as finalists in 2015, and are a long way off from their world champion predecessors of 1991 and 1999.
That much has been encapsulated over the past 18 months, as the Australians registered just four wins from 13 tests in 2018, extended their Bledisloe Cup drought to 17 years and have failed to set a benchmark performance at this World Cup.
After being given a massive fright by Fiji in their opening match of the tournament, the surprise selection of Bernard Foley at flyhalf brought with it a poor first half against Wales, which significantly contributed to their eventual loss in Tokyo.
The return of Nic White and Christian Lealiifano at No. 9 and 10 helped the Wallabies return to the winners’ circle with a 45-10 victory over Uruguay, although that scoreline flattered the victors as the South Americans challenged Australia far more than the 35-point win suggests.
A trial run of Matt To’omua as the chief playmaker in their final pool match against Georgia turned out to be a flop, as while the Wallabies enjoyed a wealth of possession and territory throughout the game, it took two tries to Jack Dempsey and Marika Koroibete in the final five minutes to secure a 27-8 win over the tier two minnows.
That fixture hasn’t left the Australians in good stead for their meeting with England, and with an underwhelming tight five, little consistency in the selection of their halves pairing and the absence of star fullback Israel Folau, who has been replaced by the declining Kurtley Beale, hopes of progression into the tournament’s semi-finals appear to be dim.
Reece Hodge’s return from suspension could bring an extra dimension into the Australian attack through his powerful boot, and the deployment of Michael Hooper and David Pocock as dual opensides should work well against England’s Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, although selecting teenage rookie Jordan Petaia in the midfield rather than at wing reeks of desperation.
By comparison, England’s lineup looks settled, aside from the surprise demotion of playmaker George Ford to the bench.
That’s allowed for captain Owen Farrell to move back to flyhalf, vacating a spot in the midfield which has been snapped up by Henry Slade, who – at this point in time – should have too much experience and guile for the highly-promising Petaia.
Up front, the presence of the robust Kyle Sinckler at tighthead prop and workhorse Maro Itoje outweighs the abilities of their opposites in the Australian pack, while the return of Billy Vunipola at No. 8 will be vital to their chances of victory.
It could be argued that England are yet to be tested at this tournament, with two easy opening fixtures against the United States and Tonga followed by a meeting with a depleted, uninspired Argentine outfit that was without Tomas Lavanini for the majority of that match in Tokyo as a result of his red card.
Pooper against the Kamikaze Kids – it sounds like something a Japanese anime artist might dream up, not the front line battle that could decide the fate of the Australia-England Rugby World Cup quarter-final. #RWC2019 #AUSvENG https://t.co/754ShNXeBp
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 18, 2019
The cancellation of their clash against France due to Typhoon Hagibis has left them with a two-week layoff, but any complacency about Jones’ men being ready and rearing to get back into action would be foolish of the Australians.
Given the magnitude of the occasion on Saturday, it would come as a shock if the Wallabies were in fact underestimating the English in any capacity, especially after the deflating display they made in their last outing against Georgia.
For them, it’s the last chance to send head coach Cheika off in winning fashion after a tumultuous tenure in charge of the national side since the last World Cup.
Standing in their way, though, is an England team who are both primed for a tilt a second-ever world title and will do everything in their power to deny the Australians of a place in the semi-finals.
Strap yourselves in – this won’t be a fixture you’ll want to miss.
DMWJ | Jim breaks down England vs Australia:
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