England won 32-15, mainly thanks to the boots of Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith, in a game that fizzed into life, then fizzled out. Freddie Steward’s lovely first-half try felt like a statement of intent, but was in fact as good as it got in a wasteful showing – until Jamie Blamire ran in for their second in the final moments. Remarkably, Blamire – the replacement hooker – has six tries in four Tests.
Australia were extremely accommodating visitors, giving away 15 penalties, and receiving two yellow cards. They did not once threaten the tryline.
Twickenham is heaving again, this time with that unmistakeable big match feel that has been absent for so long. For a rare evening game, the atmosphere was electric in an impressive pre-match show, before an emotional minute’s silence on Remembrance weekend.
The crowd witnessed England make heavy weather of winning a strange game that they ran from start to finish. It was all far nervier than it should have been. At half-time, England led 16-12, but that did not reflect their dominance, which saw they have 65% of the possession and spend 67% of the half in Australian territory.
They missed two golden opportunities to score – first when Henry Slade butchered an overlap, delaying his pass to Jonny May, and second when Nic White knocked the ball out of Jamie George’s hands in a wonderful try-saving tackle. George took a heavy blow, which led to his removal at half-time for Blamire.
In addition, they gave away four very kickable penalties in their own half. They were unable to capitalise on the gift that was 10 Australian penalties, including one that saw wing Tom Wright sin-binned for a high tackle on the rampaging George. While Wright was away, England failed to extend their advantage.
All this does not mean England did not play some lovely stuff. And their opening try, the first of Freddie Steward’s Test career, was a beauty. Farrell, stationed at first receiver, fed Smith, whose delicate pass freed Steward, running a beautiful hard line, to hare in from outside the 22.
England’s selection had prompted debate, especially the silky Smith-Farrell-Slade midfield, and Manu Tuilagi’s presence on the wing. In reality, though, it was a moveable feast, with Slade covering the backfield and Tuilagi in the thick of thew action in midfield.
That said, Tuilagi spilling the only high ball he had to take – from a kick off – made for uncomfortable viewing. Fortunately, Steward was a steadier presence in the air. Smith showed his class for the try but was perhaps forcing things a little too much under close attention from Australia.
England’s forwards ball skills were there for all to say. Kyle Sinckler had some lovely moments, while Courtney Lawes – a more complete player with each passing year – found a delightful pass to put George into space, before he was clattered by Wright.
At the set piece, England did not find the dominance they might have hoped for. With Ellis Genge and Joe Marler laid down by Covid and Mako Vunipola out of favour, Bevan Rodd was thrust in to debut at loosehead. It will have been disappointing to concede a scrum penalty to the veteran James Slipper, operating on his least favoured side.
England’s propensity to give away penalties continued after the break, when Maro Itoje – who had led the team out on his 50th cap – was pinged at the breakdown. That meant that after 42 minutes, England’s lead, somehow, was just a point.
A few minutes later, after more time camped in Australian territory, Lawes was on the end of a rugged tip tackle from Angus Bell, who sent to the bin. Again, they could not make the numerical advantage count. Farrell converted that penalty, his fifth, but missed another – perfectly simple – one just after, as well as missing a touch-finder. Australia found ways to break into England’s half, and did trouble England.
Heading into the final quarter, with Bell back and the game extremely messy, England led by just four. After he extended that to seven, they lost Farrell to injury. Smith stepped up for the latest penalty and, when he slotted it to take the lead to 10, the crowd cheered more in relief than celebration. It had been a long slog, but England were finally had enough breathing space. Fed by the returning Sam Simmonds, Blamire sprinted home, and the party could really start.