Struggling superpowers need to step up at Twickenham

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LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 17: Elliot Daly of England and Akihito Yamada of Japan both miss a high ball during the Quilter International match between England and Japan on November 17, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Australia and England are two rugby superpowers that have had poor 2018 campaigns to say the least. The annual Cook Cup contest on Saturday is therefore vitally important for both teams to lay down a convincing marker and respectively finish tough years on a high.

Will the real England and Wallabies stand-up?

Both England and the Wallabies have been riddled with inconsistency in 2018, a succession of poor defeats contributing to a general lack of confidence in how far each country can go next year. They are both rugby superpowers that should be among the contenders to challenge Ireland and the All Blacks in their quest to win rugby’s greatest prize. On current form, it is difficult to see the Wallabies replicating their excellent 2015 campaign. A loss to Wales was followed by an unconvincing win against the Italians. If Italy had taken their chances with the possession and territory they had, we could have been talking about a famous Italian win.

As for England, they are in better shape, not perfect by any means but improvements have been made in November. A poor Japan runout by England’s second stringers last weekend should not cloud the first two weeks of the autumn internationals which have brought English rugby back to life.

The depth of England’s squad and a lack of intensity and focus were obvious concerns to come out of the Japanese victory. That said the team facing the Wallabies on Saturday consists primarily of the side which took down the Springboks and should have taken down the All Blacks (bar a couple of injuries). If England take down Australia on Saturday then three wins out of four is a good return.

Wallaby talent not being utilised

With the players that the Wallabies have at their disposal they should not be losing the amount of games they are. There is far too much talent and ability as well as experience to count upon. David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Israel Folau would walk into any team. Bernard Foley, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale are also in the world class category. Australia have also successfully integrated Adam Ashley-Cooper back into national colours.

So, why are the Wallabies struggling? The bigger picture could be because of the declining interest in the sport back home. Generally poor Super rugby results across the franchises, dwindling crowds and a lack of cash. If ever Australian rugby needs a boost it has to come from the results of the national team. An encouraging win or two against the All Blacks and big wins away from home both sides of the hemisphere would go a long way.

Not all the blame goes to Cheika

An easy scapegoat would be embattled Wallaby coach Michael Cheika but that is not where all the blame should be directed towards. Cheika is considered lucky by many to still have his job but the responsibility also has to go to the players. Standards off the pitch ensure that performances on it go well is more often than not the case. No one could excuse David Pocock for example of bending the rules but the leadership team as a whole has to step up.

Too many times we have seen the Wallabies lead or be in the fight until the final quarter before succumbing to defeat. Is this as much a fitness challenge as a leadership collective to get the result over the line? We have seen England (up until 2018), All Blacks and Ireland most recently, be able to win in the last few minutes of a game. With the Wallabies, they still have many players who nearly went all the way in 2015.

Wallabies can win

Australia can win on Saturday at Twickenham. They always get up for a battle over their oldest enemy and despite the score lines in recent years, the games have always been close. With the backline the Wallabies have they will have chances to score. It is the battle up front which will determine who comes out on top at Twickenham.

Australia have to get the basics right. That means the lineout needs to function, they have to scrummage powerfully and they definitely have the edge at the breakdown battle (regardless of whether Pocock is fit or not). A key man will be centurion Will Genia. His battle against Ben Youngs is key, because when Foley has space to work in, he is lethal as England know only too well from the 2015 heartbreak.

England to win

It is difficult to look past England for Saturday’s match. They are not yet back to their best but the strides they have made in the last three weeks have been positive. England also know that if they recreate their first 40 minutes from the game against the All Blacks, then Australia will struggle.

It is a surprising selection call to drop Dylan Hartley, who has been excellent this autumn but Jamie George offers more in the loose. Otherwise the pack looks strong and fit. Outwide, the excellent Jonny May and the raw power of Joe Cokanasiga are threats together with Owen Farrell’s consistent brilliance.

After a long and troubled year, England can see light at the end of the World Cup tunnel and at home with much to prove, they should win.

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