Wallabies’ hopes in series decider hang on lessons of past SCG encounters

The first rugby international staged at the Sydney Cricket Ground was on 24 June, 1899. Australia wore sky blue jerseys, fielded two five-eighths and played two men in the front row. The British XV, featuring players from all four Home Nations, employed a tactic of dribbling the ball upfield at their feet in a rush. But it didn’t work. After being locked at 3-3 for most of the Test, Australia scored two converted tries in the final seven minutes to win 13-3.

According to referee, WG Gerrard, Australia won because “they kept slogging all the time. They were workers not waiters. The English forwards were waiting for chances that never came. And the reason why the chances did not come was because [the Australians] were too fast. They swept on in a body and did not allow the game to become an open one.”

The last Australia-England Test staged at the Sydney Cricket Ground was on 24 May, 1975. Australia, captained by halfback John Hipwell and coached by Dave Brockhoff, wore gold. Desperate after not having won a series in 10 years, they unleashed a calculated mayhem on an English pack featuring Bill Beaumont, current chairman of World Rugby, and won 16-9 on the back of a “step forward” philosophy built on forward power and never backing down.

“Our game plan should be built on the security and foundation of disciplined forward play. Then we can run,” Brockhoff thundered before the series. “Give me big tight-five men up front, a rangy lock and two good flankers and you’re in business. Play it tight, work to get into their half, then we have the basis. Once you get up there, run, but only when it is good ball.”

With the Ella-Mobbs series deadlocked at one-all and local rugby fans desperate for results, Michael Hooper’s Australians run on to the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday with their future hanging on the lessons of these past Wallaby sides running on with them too. Keep slogging. Sweep on in a body. Disciplined forward play. Run only when it is good ball.

Dave Rennie’s squad has managed all four mantras, in parts, across the two Tests so far. The SCG, a classic battlefield for Australia-England rivalry, must be where it comes together. Win, and they can exorcise the demons Eddie Jones’s England has plagued them with these past six years. Lose, and they will remain haunted and hurting until the 2023 World Cup.

In their first Test victory at Perth, Australia defied a nightmare reshuffle of key positions in the first half to calmly and courageously attack England with 14 men and secure a great victory. The men in gold won it up front, with crafty and explosive forward play, then iced it out wide, mauling and slogging to earn good ball, and sweeping upfield to blast through – and over.

In the second Test at Suncorp Stadium, Australia were out-slogged early, blown away at the collision, and ill-disciplined in their forward play. The Wallaby backs too often tried to run with bad ball from their own red zone and usually went one-out rather than sweeping up in formation. Like a gutsy pug trying to counter-punch from the corners, they landed some blows to fight back from 19-0, scoring two tries to one, but Owen Farrell’s boot won England a points decision.

Saturday’s decider will be a street fight. England are at the bitter end of a long tough season. Their record is patchy and their coach is under siege. They will do anything to win this Test and have already shown a willingness to bait, niggle and bludgeon to victory. Australia must match England for mongrel, then punish them with superior speed and skill.

Rennie’s side has lost a lot of blood in this series and a huge chunk of personnel but the coach still has significant weapons to deploy in a bid to match England’s early physicality. Queensland barnstormer Harry Wilson will start in the back row, having this year crossed the gainline in Super Rugby more than any forward since 2011. Nick Frost, touted as the most athletically gifted Australian lock in a century, gets his chance in the second row while veteran James Slipper wins yet another shot to lock horns with the white orcs up front.

Perhaps fearing a repeat of the 2016 series where Australia scored more tries but lost when Farrell booted 23 from 26 attempts, Rennie has recalled “superboot” utility Reece Hodge. The 27-year-old is Rennie’s third fullback in three Tests but rounds out a potent back three with wingers Tom Wright and Marika Koroibete both among Australia’s best at Suncorp.

Most intriguingly Rennie has at last taken the wraps off his secret project, former NRL champion Suli Vunivalu, who has won a bench spot and will be unleashed after two injury disrupted seasons with the Queensland Reds. The 27-year-old scored a record 21 tries in his debut season for the Melbourne Storm and if he can do anywhere near the same wearing a gold jersey Rennie’s faith, and that of restless Wallabies fans, will be rewarded.

Australia face an imposing and hugely exciting run of two-Test series in the next 10 weeks: an away series against the Michael Cheika-coached Argentina, before Tests against South Africa in Adelaide and Sydney’s new football stadium, before facing the All Blacks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Eden Park.

But first Jones and England must be vanquished. Only then can Australia march into these mettlesome contests confident they’re on track for next year’s World Cup in France. As they exit the old Member’s Pavilion and take to the sacred SCG turf, the Wallabies might hear the echo of Dave Brockhoff’s words ahead of the 1975 Test: “Some people could live with saying ‘We’re a cracker bunch of blokes, that’s what matters’… but winning is what it is all about.”