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First up the Investec Challenge Rugby Union test match between England and Australia.

My first big time international at Billy William's cabbage patch.

I managed to get some relatively expensive (not helped by Ticketba$tards 'handling fees') tickets through my England Rugby Supporters Club membership (a birthday pressie from Simon and Helen: Ta muchly!). George and I ended up with seats in the top tier of the East stand, three rows from the front, more or less on the southern 22 metre line. Armed with a Reflink radio we were all set for a tense game of rugby between two sides, both of whom were lacking in confidence.

England had a jittery start, dropped balls and knock ons, missed tackles etc. Australia always looked dangerous with the ball in hand and especially going forward at speed. It seemed that they could turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye. The nagging feeling that i have had watching England over the last few years is that they look vulnerable to the counterattack from broken play. I think the defensive system that they employ is perhaps too regimented and when players end up out of position there are problems, there were a couple of last gasp tackles that prevented Australian scores.

Australia have some very talented backs despite their current injury crisis, the question was how much ball they could get. Thanks to the usual suspects Messrs Smith and Waugh they had a supply of ball from the breakdown to work with, though their tactics were not quite to Matt Dawson's taste, and he was clearly audible over the reflink moaning to Mr Jutge in a number of instances. Mr Jutge's answer, "Is Ok, you need more support at the ruck" however england did not listen and coughed up the ball too many times. I think England need to tighten things up in this area and display some tactical flexibility, playing the referee if you will, when it becomes clear that the ref will not penalise the opposition as quickly as England want they must be prepared to commit more men to the ruck.

The first yellow card was for a professional foul by Moody, coming in from the side and killing the Australian attack. Later on Gregan was binned for an offence as cynical as Moody's had been, tackling Dawson as he took a tap penalty a mere two yards from the point of the penalty rather than the more usual ten! The move previous he had provoked the ire of the crowd by blocking an England player who had chipped over the top. Though he still has a great pass, it seemed on that performance that Gregan is making up with cynicism the edge that he might have lost physically.

The real story of the game though was the performance of the England scrum and particularly Andrew Sheridan vs Al Baxter. Sheridan, all 6'5" of converted second row, had Baxter in all sorts of trouble from the word go. In all the Wallaby scrum gave away six penalties, ultimately ending with Baxter's sin-binning his trouble. Mr Jutge repeatedly asked him to scrummage straight and square : he was unable to do so. When Baxter went off Dunning had to cover the Tight Head side and was injured in the next scrum, seriously it seemed at the time, though he has since proved to be ok. The funny part was trying to listen to the referee and linesman's conversations in french during the injury break. It seemed to me that they could have been saying something like 'these australians scrummage like girls' but my french isn't that good!

As a result of this edge in the scrum England had the lion's share of territory and possession, their line out worked ok apart from two instances, both defensive lineouts that got messed up with potentially serious consequences, one resulted in Drew Mitchell's try for Australia.

Cohen and Cuteo's tries were well taken, but in general the back play exhibited by England was a little lacklustre. There was not much invention in midfield and little linking play that brought the wingers or fullback into the line at speed. I think having Tindall and Noon in the centre cuts down creative options as they are very similar players. England battered Australia's line for a long period in the second half and there was no cutting edge on display, just pick and go recycling, which didn't really look like it would breach the Australian line.

The front five played with a good level of confidence. Sheridan in particular stood out, though it was good to see Vickery too. Grewcock got on with his game without judicial intervention becoming necessary. Sanderson had a fine game after his early knock on. Hodgson looked composed especially with his place kicking and Cohen seems to have regained some form.

A good day at the office, thought the scoreline suggests a closer game than it was in reality. They will need to play out of their skins to compete with a red hot All Blacks team. With my pessimist's hat on I feel that staying within 12 to 15 points of NZ next saturday would be a pretty good result.

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May 2009

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