To say a big series is looming for both Australia and England is to state the blindingly obvious. The Wallabies are keen to revive their status as heavy hitters in the international game while Eddie Jones is under pressure to demonstrate he still has the golden coaching touch of old. If either side ends up losing 3-0 the inquests threaten to be both lengthy and messy.
Which is what makes this such a potentially revealing three weeks. Even if Jones had not just replaced Owen Farrell as captain and done a selectorial reverse ferret in recalling players such as Billy Vunipola and Danny Care, now would be a fine time for England to deliver. Not since their World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand in 2019 have they registered a real statement win away from Twickenham.
In that context it was fascinating to hear Courtney Lawes, now his country’s undisputed leader, standing in the sunshine outside a city centre mall while stressing how England now want to operate. “If I’m honest I’m probably skipper because I think differently to Eddie and I’m willing to challenge him as a leader,” says the straight-talking Lawes. “I think that’s why he’s kept me on. I’m an old geezer now and don’t mind saying what’s on my mind. I think he liked that approach. I’ve made a lot of the lads comfortable around the team and that’s the team environment we want.”
According to Lawes the players also desired more input in terms of how the squad works than they have had previously. Call it a more empathetic vibe as opposed to player power but Lawes and Farrell – “We’re almost polar opposites but in a good way” – clearly lead differently. “I’m more than willing to essentially get a feel of what the team needs,” continues Lawes. “Then the coaches will have a feeling and we’ll come to a compromise, instead of it all being one way in terms of just doing what the coaches say. The game’s developing and the leadership group and the coaching team with Eddie think that’s the best way to be.”
In other words there is a collective sense that England need to up their game and that loosening the reins slightly might help. Too many players have struggled to express their true selves, too many assistant coaches have come and gone. While their 3-0 series win in Australia was a high water mark in 2016, it increasingly feels a long time ago.
With 13 of the matchday 23 against France in Paris in March not involved this weekend, this tour should show if a corner has finally been turned. “We’ve made a lot of changes and we think they’ll be for the better,” says Lawes. “We’re trying to find that balance between what we had then in 2016, which was massive but was hard to maintain, and what we had in 2019 when we got to the final of the World Cup. We want to find that sweet spot.”
If Lawes and Farrell have no personal problem over the captaincy switch – “That first conversation was absolutely fine as I knew it would be” – the Northampton forward freely says he was surprised Farrell was not reappointed. With Jones having also revealed that Farrell was “very unhappy” at the news, it makes this a critical series for the Saracen, along with several others.
Because if the Wallabies do make a fast start to the series and then successfully go for the jugular, Jones has already accepted the scrutiny on all and sundry will continue to mount. Australia will climb above their opponents in the world rankings with a first Test win and are growing tired of being asked whether Jones, with eight straight victories over his compatriots since taking on the England role, has the wood over them. “History has not been in our favour against the English for some years now and we are dead keen to rip in now,” confirmed the home captain, Michael Hooper.
While the Brumbies-dominated home side have been preparing in Queensland and arrived in Western Australia less than 48 hours before the game, Lawes also believes they will be desperate to atone for their below-par effort at Twickenham back in November. “I know they think they didn’t fire any shots in that game and I’d be surprised if they didn’t throw the kitchen sink at us,” says Lawes. “I don’t think you can underestimate how much it means for the Australia team to play here and win. We know it will be one hell of a contest.”
The two sides will also be competing for a new prize, the Ella-Mobbs Trophy having replaced the now defunct Cook Cup. Mark Ella, among the greatest playmakers of either rugby code, says it is welcome recognition for Australia’s indigenous communities – “It means a lot” – but is unsure which captain will hoist it. He is not alone; rarely has a series felt so wide open. Factor in a few nerves, a touch of dew and two pumped-up packs and the opening Test may not be pretty. If the option was offered in advance, England might even settle for the temporary sanctuary of a draw.