When an England side last set foot on the sacred sporting turf of the Sydney Cricket Ground during last winter’s Ashes, Jimmy Anderson blocked out the final over to ensure a gripping draw. It was a rare moment of visiting relief, with the series long gone. Win or lose on Saturday, their rugby union cousins will be returning home with appreciably more to show from their Australian tour experience.
From a purely red rose perspective, though, the Ella-Mobbs Cup decider is a keynote contest for a couple of reasons. Clearly there is a desire to end a long season on an upbeat note by securing a morale-enhancing series victory, a distant prospect less than a fortnight ago. To do so with a matchday squad featuring three 21-year-olds and two 19-year-olds would further hint at a corner finally being turned.
Perhaps as importantly it would also legitimise the fresh approach, instigated by the players, that has significantly lightened the mood in and around the camp. On this trip, for example, there has been no training beyond midday with players encouraged to switch off and enjoy themselves rather than constantly being under the thumbs of a stern-faced management.
If England were currently 2-0 down and had spent the past week sulking in the rain in Coogee this more relaxed, less-is-more vibe might have been on borrowed time. Instead the sun is now out and the initiative seems to be bearing fruit, the initial seeds having been planted by Ellis Genge as long ago as last summer when the current skipper Courtney Lawes and others were away on the British & Irish Lions tour.
As vice-captain for the home summer Tests against the United States and Canada, Genge sought to persuade Eddie Jones that the squad needed a “change of tack” to borrow Lawes’s phrase, both in terms of the team environment and training emphasis and the players’ relationship with the head coach. The upshot, in Lawes’s view, is a greatly improved work-life balance. “It is not as constant so it’s not pressure 24/7,” says the Northampton forward, suggesting the days of Jones sending 4am texts and insisting on 6am training sessions have been consigned to history.
“There is none of that … we have made it a much more enjoyable environment. We are not doing it because we want everything to be sunshine and roses. We are doing it because we think that is actually how you’ll get the best out of the team. Make sure people are fresh by the weekend because they haven’t had to think about rugby all week. They’ve just done it in short bursts they can handle. It is all for a reason.”
It has also required a leap of faith from Jones’s perspective to choose, as Lawes puts it, “to work closely with us and trust us that we know the best direction of the team.” Slowly but surely, green shoots of promise are indeed emerging: there has been a greater willingness to back precocious young talents such as Henry Arundell, Jack van Poortvliet and Tommy Freeman, and a noticeable collective desire to hang tough was evident when the Wallabies, 1-0 up from the first Test in Perth, were seeking to storm back into the game in Brisbane.
Jones certainly seems happier now he is back on his old stomping ground and, perhaps as importantly, back in charge of the narrative. “I really like the way this team is developing,” he insisted this week. “We have grown a lot on the tour and I can just see it in the players’ eyes. We have brought back players like Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Billy Vunipola … they’re all getting close to their best and then we have this group of young guns coming through. When we get the right mix between the two we are going to have a bloody good team.”
It will certainly be instructive to see precisely how many of this third Test side are still in place when New Zealand and South Africa knock on Twickenham’s front door in November. Waiting for Manu is now, to all intents and purposes, a play by Samuel Beckett but Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Anthony Watson, George Ford, Ben Youngs, Raffi Quirke, Kyle Sinckler, Joe Marler, Joe Launchbury, Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds, Alfie Barbeary and others are all absent from this tour and should be suitably refreshed when they reappear.
Add in Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, whose Australian adventures have all concluded early, and England can hardly say they do not have the players. The trick, as ever, is to pull together all the strands when it matters, especially with the north v south hemisphere rivalry as competitive as it ever has been. “Sometimes results just go against you,” stresses Lawes, reflecting on the thin line his side endlessly have to tread.
“Against Scotland this year, for example, we were handily in front in that game. Two kicks later you are on the back foot and you have lost. We want to make sure, even if we do lose, that we are still driving in one direction and it is not just back to square one. We are not thinking we are the best team in the world, we just want to improve a bit more each week come rain or shine. Hopefully, when it counts, we will be where we need to be.”
It all makes for another compelling Test, notwithstanding the staccato tempo now routinely disrupting the flow of many internationals. Australia have picked arguably their most balanced side of the series and will come hard and strong from the outset, with the outstanding Samu Kerevi a lethal attacking weapon whenever he has the ball. With this week’s State of Origin thriller having raised the entertainment bar, the Wallabies will be even more desperate to give it a rip.
There is also a theory that England, more used to tighter rectangular modern stadiums than a wide open, spacious oval with distant crowds, might take some time to adjust at the idiosyncratic SCG, which last saw Test rugby in 1986. The finishing touches are being put to the latest version of the Sydney Football Stadium next door, so this is the last time rugby studs will clatter out on to a stage more synonymous with Bradman, Waugh and Warne. For young and old, a series victory really would be one to cherish.