England must avert World Cup crisis with win over Australia
Owen Farrell's fall from grace is the most obvious result of English rugby's awful autumn
A month ago the England rugby squad was feeling pretty pleased with itself. Coach Stuart Lancaster had just been rewarded for two years of steady improvement with a new contract that guaranteed his position until 2020, RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie explaining that "it's the right leap of faith... a commitment to sustainable success".
Lancaster, for his part, had lost only 11 of his 30 matches since taking over from Martin Johnson at the start of 2012 and was impressively bullish when he signed the deal. "We believe that England Rugby is moving in the right direction, we have the right coaching and management team to take us forward and are excited about the challenge ahead," he told reporters.
The last few weeks have proved Lancaster was premature in his confident assertions. England have stopped moving in the right direction; in fact, they've gone backwards this month, losing to New Zealand and South Africa and labouring to a uninspiring 28-9 win over Samoa.
Now England's oldest overseas foes lies in wait – and how Australia would love to inflict a third defeat this autumn on their ancient rival.
Defeat for England doesn't bear thinking about, not with the World Cup a little over nine months away, but if the Wallabies do win at Twickenham tomorrow Lancaster's squad will officially be in crisis and the RFU might start to wonder if they also weren't a little premature in offering the 45-year-old former schoolteacher a six-year deal.
Australia are the weakest of the three southern hemisphere giants and tomorrow's encounter is the last Test of a long, long year for the Wallabies. The players are tired and dreaming of cold beers on the beach back home, but they'll be relishing the challenge of embarrassing England. They also have the armoury to do it, as they showed in defeating Wales and running both France and Ireland perilously close.
In Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Toomua they have gifted three footballers far superior to anything England can offer. The Wallabies also have flanker Michael Hooper, a world-class ball-winner at the breakdown, and if he secures a stream of possession for his backline it could be a long afternoon for the England threequarters. "Hooper needs special attention," admitted England forwards' coach Graham Rowntree. "He's pretty central to everything Australia do offensively - and at the breakdown as well."
England have made three changes to the side that defeated Samoa, bringing in Tom Wood for James Haskell in the back-row, replacing hooker Rob Webber with Dylan Hartley and, most significantly, axing Owen Farrell for Billy Twelvetrees in midfield.
Farrell has had a miserable month. He began November as England's first-choice fly-half, but two slack performances prompted Lancaster to shift him inside to centre. That helped neither Farrell, nor the man who replaced him at ten, George Ford, so the former Golden Boy of English rugby has been dropped to the bench. It's some fall from grace for Farrell, who two years ago was shortlisted for the world Player of the Year award.
Farrell is still only 23 so he has time on his side, and so has Lancaster with his six year contract. But this England team does not. The World Cup clock is ticking and defeat against Australia will set the alarm bell ringing.