LONDON, 3 Oct – The wheels finally came shearing off the chariot as Twickenham was plunged into a stupefied malaise. England were out of their own World Cup at an unprecedented and indecently early stage, leaving nothing but recriminations, painful inquests, the unmistakable whiff of a spurned legacy and coach Stuart Lancaster pondering an uncertain future.
This time, there could be no excuses, no what might have beens. Outplayed, out-thought, beaten by speed and cleanness of execution, what was so dispiriting for every England supporter in the 80,000 crowd was just how vast the chasm was between their prosaic team and the clinical Wallabies in this 33-13 destruction.
In most departments, they came off second best so often that, in truth apart from one fleeting spell in the second half when George Ford’s influence helped pull them back to within seven points and Australia hit what coach Michael Cheika called a “dark place”, they never truly felt in the hunt.
The champions of the Southern hemisphere played like it. When they recycled in attack, they seemed to operate so much quicker and with more enterprise than the hosts. When play broke down or England tried to keep on the front foot, David Pocock and Michael Hooper were instantly slowing them down or snapping the ball back like thirsty bloodhounds at a hunt.
And in the scrummage, for so long supposedly the stuff of Australian nightmares, the sight of England’s pack being pushed backwards at a rate of knots in the second half was like the final indignity for the home fans, like seeing a bunch of unruly pirates making off with the best rum from a sinking ship. What price Mario Ledesma, Argentina’s old hooker now teaching the dark arts to the Wallaby scrum, as man of the match?
Only Bernard Foley beat him to that one, even if, perversely, Joe Launchbury was given the official nod. The performance of a lifetime. They call him the ’Iceman’ for his coolness when taking penalties but here he was scorching hot, flitting over for two tries and deadly from the tee, with the only coolness being in his decision making about when to strike.
So, whither England now? Lancaster’s contract as coach should see him, in theory, be in charge until 2020 but knee-jerk reactions to let-downs of this magnitude are part of the modern sporting landscape and he knows there will be a clamour for him to be replaced, admitting afterwards that “obviously, I’ve got to (consider my position). It’s not going to be just my decision but it’s not one for now.”
During the week, he said, he would have to concentrate on next week’s Uruguay game, which, for his team, will be the least appetising dessert in World Cup annals.
Of course, England’s absence from the knock-out stages, the first time this has happened to a host nation, feels calamitous for the tournament that has seen such a feast of excellent rugby, yet Lancaster insisted that the show would still be splendid.
“I still think it will be the best World Cup. There are too many good sides for it not to be. I think the other countries will continue to play well and the crowds will still come to support,” Lancaster said, as he implored the nation to stick behind the young players who he believes will still make a big impact for English rugby in years to come.
They were noble sentiments from a decent, proud man but they may have fallen on deaf ears as a deflated crowd drifted off into the night with captain Chris Robshaw admitting the players felt they had let them, and the whole nation, down.
They did not really. Ultimately, they were just not good enough, the same old failures of being unable to take their chances clinically, not having the killer instinct when dominating and, actually, not having enough truly world-beating quality in their ranks – whatever Danny Cipriani thinks – to consistently down the world’s best sides.
In his 40th match, this was probably the worst defeat in Lancaster’s three and a half year reign – although the 30-3 capitulation to Wales at the Millennium Stadium in 2013 pushes it hard – and the distinct feeling was left that, despite the odd starburst victory like that over the All Blacks in 2012, here was a side which had actually not made the great improvements at the highest level that Lancaster had claimed for it.
He never dared to dare either; while his wild card Cipriani was on the sidelines writing daft blogs, Australia’s equivalent, Kurtley Beale, was having a blinder off the bench.
Australia are Rugby Championship winners; Lancaster’s side has won nothing and it showed again. Cheika shrugged, as he considered Lancster’s difficult position: “I don’t wish that type of difficulty on anyone. I’ve been there. I’m sure he’ll bounce back.” Maybe, but the question is: will it be with England?
RUGBY WORLD CUP 2015