Australia v England: What should England fans look out for in three-Test series?
When England last toured Australia in 2016, head coach Eddie Jones had just steered his side to a first Grand Slam in 13 years, re-energising a group of players who had crashed out of the Rugby World Cup at the pool stages a few months earlier.
On the pitch, Jones was decisive. Off it, he was full of mischief, running rings around opposite number Michael Cheika.
With his players, the media and the English rugby public, Jones was walking on water.
Six years on, the landscape looks very different.
There have been highs since 2016 – most notably the run to the 2019 World Cup final – but twice in recent seasons Jones’ position has been questioned after poor Six Nations campaigns.
Since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, England have played nine away matches, losing five.
So what can England supporters expect from their three-Test tour? What kind of Australia lie in wait? Are the Wallabies on the up, or will Jones improve on his perfect 8-0 win record against his homeland?
|2 July: First Test – Optus Stadium, Perth|
|9 July: Second Test – Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane|
|19 July: Third Test – Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney|
|All matches kick off at 10:55 BST. Live text commentaries will be available on the BBC Sport website and app|
Jones v Rennie
Jones’ sparring with former Randwick team-mate Cheika was an entertaining sub-plot of the 2016 tour. Jones took every opportunity to foster a siege mentality, take the pressure off his players, and get under the skin of the gregarious Cheika.
Jones’ antics on that tour are the stuff of legend: walking out of a referee’s meeting after one minute, railing against the Australia media for their coverage, and inviting NRL great Andrew Johns to England training among his many tricks.
“I think what Eddie in 2016 was a masterstroke,” former Australia wing Drew Mitchell told the Rugby Union Weekly podcast.
“From where England were post-2015, what he did was deflect all the attention from the players and where they were at, and put it on him versus Michael Cheika.”
Fittingly it was Jones and England who ushered in the end of Cheika’s reign with a 40-16 hammering of the Wallabies in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final in Oita.
Cheika’s replacement – the less volatile Kiwi Dave Rennie – is unlikely to engage as willingly with the mind games.
Owen Farrell has been Jones’ go-to man as captain since replacing Dylan Hartley in 2018, and did a brilliant job at the World Cup a year later.
However, the Saracens man has struggled to make his customary mark on the Test arena of late, not helped by injuries which curtailed his 2021 autumn campaign and ruled him out of the Six Nations the following spring.
When fit, Farrell has been Jones’ choice, and was backed to retain the captaincy as recently as January.
Now the noises are that Farrell is set for a return to the ranks, with Courtney Lawes likely to retain the armband he took at the back end of the Six Nations.
Former England wing Ugo Monye says that could get more out of Farrell – as as well as fly-half Marcus Smith.
“I want the very best of Owen Farrell, because when we get the very best of Owen Farrell he is one of the best in the world,” Monye told Rugby Union Weekly.
“If we do get a fully firing Owen Farrell with Marcus Smith, who is on fire at the moment, I am so confident about what this side can achieve not just this summer but over the next year and a half.”
But who will lead England at the World Cup in France next year, when Lawes will be 34? Will one of Ellis Genge, Tom Curry or Maro Itoje emerge as a long-term skipper?
Back to the future at 10
While Smith is set to start at fly-half for England, with Farrell alongside him at inside centre, Rennie’s options at 10 boil down to two familiar figures.
Quade Cooper, 34, and James O’Connor, 31, made their debuts in 2008, when England full-back Freddie Steward was seven.
Both have had chequered careers and have done superbly to force their way back into international contention. Mitchell expects O’Connor to start, and says he is a vastly different player to the one who struggled against the British and Irish Lions in 2013.
“Even though James played 10 against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, I don’t think he was a 10,” Mitchell added.
“I think that was probably indicative of where he was at off the field as a player and a person – he was looking for himself first then trying to serve others, and as a 10 it’s got to be the other way around.
“It’s been remarkable seeing James and the journey he has been on. He speaks about it a lot and quite openly. The change he has had off the field we have seen transfer onto the field, which is why I believe now he is a bona-fide 10.
“But there needs to be that next generation of 10s coming through. They are there, but I just don’t know if they are necessarily ready to be thrown in against England just yet.
“I think we could probably get away with Quade and James for next year’s World Cup, but certainly by 2027 we need that younger generation to really step up.”
Whoever starts at fly-half, the return of the outstanding centre Samu Kerevi from Japan is a major boost to the Wallabies.
Australian rugby – doom or hope?
Always accustomed to scrapping for its place in the crowded Australian sporting landscape, rugby union has endured a torrid time down under in recent years, both on and off the pitch.
After a turbulent period, there are signs of hope, with Australia set to host the British and Irish Lions in 2025 followed by two Rugby World Cups; precious lifelines that could revive the flagging rugby nation.
According to Mitchell, Rennie has gone some way to reconnecting the Wallabies with the public.
“We are in a pretty tough market with rugby league, AFL and cricket, and there has been some disenfranchised supporters for a little while now,” he added.
“I think Dave Rennie has done a really good job in connecting the playing group with the grassroots. He is a really calm and settled kind of character, he has the buy-in from the players and there is a real sense of togetherness and belief in the squad.
“But while we have plenty of support around the Wallabies at the moment, that can change with a series loss.”
Development or delivery?
“Judge me on the World Cup” was a familiar refrain from Clive Woodward when he was coaching England in the 1990s – suggesting a long-standing focus with the showpiece every four years.
But it seems more than ever that coaches – especially those struggling for results – are talking about “building” and “developing” for France 2023, despite the fact a World Cup is riddled with variables and can only be won by one team.
The World Cup was certainly the furthest thing from French supporters’ minds as they danced the night away in St Denis following the Grand Slam triumph.
After the meek 2022 Six Nations, the Rugby Football Union spoke in glowing terms about the team’s “solid progress” in a statement much derided by fans and pundits alike.
With this in mind, it is time for England to deliver consistent results. A series win in Australia would go a long way to convincing a sceptical English rugby public that ‘Project 2023’ remains firmly on track.