Wednesday, 30 October 2013

1984: England v Australia (Rugby Union)

As Australia prepared for the first international leg of their 1984 tour to Britain and Ireland, it was evident that they were in a much healthier state than their old rivals England. The visitors had run a strong New Zealand side close in a 2-1 series loss in the southern hemisphere summer, whereas England's recent run of results were hardly cause for any encouragement.

The 1980 Grand Slam was by now a distant memory. In 1983 England had finished bottom of the Five Nations table, and the 12-9 win over Ireland in February 1984 had been their only victory in the tournament in the last two seasons. Two crushing defeats followed in South Africa, skipper John Scott announcing his retirement after the tour, leaving an England side, already in disarray, searching for their fourth captain in the last eighteen months.

The poisoned chalice was handed to an uncapped scrum-half, whose own injury record seemed to reflect the fragile state of the English game at that time. Nigel Melville had previously been called up to the England squad for the 1983 Calcutta Cup match, but his withdrawal with an ankle injury was one setback amongst many; a neck injury forced him to pull out of the Lions tour to New Zealand and his left knee had been operated on five times in a little over a year. Melville would become just the fourth Englishman to captain his country on debut, a painfully inexperienced side as it would transpire. Inspiration or desperation was the question posed by the Daily Express' Alan Thompson. It was hard to tell.

Of the XV selected for the Australia match at Twickenham, five were debutants - Melville, Stuart Barnes, Rob Lozowski, Gareth Chilcott, and Nigel Redman - only three survived from the previous match against South Africa, and in total only 62 caps worth of experience existed in the starting line-up, with 40 of those shared between John Carleton and Gary Pearce.

Melville was certainly under no illusions regarding the task ahead, openly admitting that he was surprised at his selection, especially after only five first class matches that season. "It was a difficult decision. My first thoughts were that I would rather win that first cap without the distraction of leadership," commented Melville, yet it would have been a brave man to have declined the offer of leading his country. There would be no easy introduction to both the job and Test rugby, however. The touring Australians were talking a good game, and as the home nations were about to discover, they could play pretty well too.

Coached by the confident Alan Jones, many of the Australian players invested some of their hard earned money in the 8/1 odds offered by Ladbrokes for an international Grand Slam. The coach and players were certainly justified in feeling that a clean sweep was a distinct possibility. The narrow series defeat at home to New Zealand - their two Test losses were by only four points and a single point - gave an indication of their abilities, and the tourists arrived in England possessing a back line to fear.

Fly-half Mark Ella was the heartbeat of the side, quick in both thoughts and deeds; David Campese provided the pace and skill on the wing that we would all grudgingly acknowledge through his Test career; a young Nick Farr-Jones was about to make his breakthrough into the side, winning his first cap at scrum-half against England; and skipper Andrew Slack would be partnered at centre with a 21-year-old Queensland University student called Michael Lynagh.

If there was any glimmer of light for the British and Irish, then a perceived lack of quality in the scrum was perhaps one chink in the Australian armour. After a comfortable backs-inspired 22-3 win in the tour opener against London, the visitors were lucky to escape with a 12-12 draw at Exeter, as the South and South West Division's forwards dominated throughout, and when the Cardiff pack repeated the dose in a 16-12 win for the Welsh team, early Australian bravado seemed misplaced. Such was the resounding defeat at the Arms Park, that the Daily Mirror's Chris Lander gave this damning verdict: "The Wallabies can bury their dreams of a unique Test grand slam after this jolting defeat".

The backs continued to demonstrate their potency in a crushing 44-9 win over the Combined Services at Aldershot, Campese scoring three tries, Slack two - before sitting out the second half with a hamstring strain - and Lynagh adding six conversions to his try. A much improved forwards display in the final warm-up match at Swansea saw Australia win 17-7 in the 67 minutes of play possible before a floodlight failure.

Despite being less than pleased with the tour planning, which saw Australia travel back and forth between Cardiff, Aldershot, Swansea and London, coach Jones was content with the team preparations: "We are on target. The players are putting it together and I am always optimistic," adding "I never think that the green and golds are ever going to lose".

With so many new faces and a national team at such a low ebb, it was hardly a case of England expects in the run-up to the match. There were the occasional noises of optimism, the Daily Express' Tony Bodley stating "The Australians, slow to hit form, could find themselves swamped by enthusiasm, pride and, at long last, a touch of class," but in general, most experts predicted a comfortable Australian victory.

It was therefore not surprising that the match on November 3 at Twickenham was so one-sided, although any English supporters looking desperately for some positives or hope for the future would be struggling to find any. The Melville-Barnes partnership was a crumb of comfort from the depressing defeat, with flankers Jon Hall and Gary Rees putting in sterling performances, and Rory Underwood gave a brief glimpse of what he could do, but as The Times' David Hands put it, "England were not in the same street, or even the same city, as Australia".

That the half-time score was 3-3 said more about the wastefulness of the Australians than anything else. Worryingly for England, the visitors' pack had upped their game from the previous efforts on tour; the former Argentina prop Topo Rodriguez had a fine match, helping to ensure the Australian front-five gained the upper hand early on; lock Steve Cutler was dominant in the line-out; Steve Tuynman was everywhere at No. 8. All this from the supposed weak element of the Australian make-up.

Unusually though, Lynagh's kicking was inaccurate, three attempts missed as the away team camped in England's half. Somehow England even had the temerity to take the lead, Barnes' penalty after a collapsed scrum giving the capacity crowd something to cheer. It was as good as it got though. Australia hit back just three minutes later, as Lynagh's penalty gave the Wallabies some reward for their domination. The teams turned around at half-time level on points, yet it seemed just a matter of time before the Aussies would land the knockout blow that their play had merited.

England were given another gentle reminder of what the Australians were capable of early in the second half. From a Barnes dropout, Cutler again gobbled up the ball, before Ella and full-back Roger Gould sent Brendan Moon clear, the winger only prevented from going over after a fine tackle by Underwood. Moon would later leave the field with a broken arm, his replacement Matt Burke fitting in seamlessly on debut. For England, there would be some pain of their own very soon.

From the scrum, Slack made a dummy run between Lynagh and Ella, the latter jinking his way through the flummoxed English defence for the first try of the match. Lynagh easily converted to give the scoreboard a more realistic look, as Australia, relieved at having finally taken a chance, cranked up a few gears.

The one-way traffic was relentless, the gap in class between the teams fully kicking in. A sweeping move from left to right resulted in Lynagh's first Test try. Again Slack provided a decoy between Ella and Lynagh, before Gould released Burke, the debutant superbly stepping inside and keeping the ball moving back to Gould, even though Underwood brought him down. Gould's pass to Lynagh completed the move for a breathless try, England simply unable to cope with the free flowing rugby on display. England 3 Australia 13; damage limitation was the order of the day.

In fairness, England did try to open up where possible, but any such attempts were thwarted by a resolute Australian defence. One example of this saw Australia score their final try, and it gave a demonstration, if it was needed, of Ella's sublime skills. Gould's long pass to the fly-half arrived at turf level, yet Ella somehow scooped it up, bringing an audible gasp from the Twickenham crowd. Ella then sent Campese on his way for a race to the line with Underwood, and although the English winger held up Campese, a pass inside to Poidevin resulted in a try under the posts. Lynagh's conversion was the final score of the match, the Australian's leaving the pitch with a record 19-3 victory over England, and the first leg of the Grand Slam comfortably in the bag.

Once the dust had settled, the post-mortem into the English defeat was conducted in the sports pages of the national newspapers. In truth the structure of the sport within the country was seen as the primary problem, rather than the players involved. David Hands noted in The Times that "England are paying, and will continue to pay, the penalty for an uncompetitive structure in their domestic game". Indeed it would take until 1987 for a proper club league to be established in England, but this was not the only cause for concern.

Take for example the preparations of both England and Australia. The tourists were able to work on tactics and moves through regular training sessions, whereas England only got together on the Friday before the match (although the forwards were able to meet briefly at Worcester on the Monday). The beleaguered England coach Dick Greenwood, and Melville, were in favour of a Thursday meet-up, but the amateur status of the game did not cater for this. Players had to make a living outside of the sport, and this obviously raised issues. Steve Brain, who would replace the injured Steve Mills in the first half, was unable to attend the Friday session due to work commitments. It wasn't ideal, but that's just the way it was back in 1984.

There were no such worries for Australia though, as they were a quarter of the way towards their desired goal. Jones emphasised that the team could still improve, a chilling warning for Ireland, Wales and Scotland: "We can play better than that if we show more discipline in taking our opportunities". There would be bigger examinations than England, yet it was the perfect start to the international part of the tour.

English rugby continued to plumb the depths for the next four years, captains and players coming and going with alarming regularity. The brave new world under Melville's leadership failed to materialise; he would pick up another knee injury and miss England's next match against Romania. Paul Dodge had a go in 1985, Melville again in 1986, as the captaincy was passed around like a hot potato (Richard Hill, Mike Harrison, John Orwin, and Richard Harding would all assume the role at various points between 1987-88).

Four years after Melville's debut, another apparent new dawn arrived in the shape of Geoff Cooke, Roger Uttley, and Will Carling. Luckily Carling's first match as captain against the touring Australians had a happier ending. After sitting through many of the debacles of the 1980s up until that point, it made the win in that match so much sweeter.

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