England’s players have been told they have “nowhere to hide” as they look to banish the pain of their first Test defeat last Saturday and salvage their Australian tour. The experienced prop Mako Vunipola also believes the touring side need to reproduce the defensive heroics that helped to clinch the 2016 series against the Wallabies if they are to stay in the best-of-three series.
Vunipola, now 31, is one of a handful of players who featured in the tense second Test in Melbourne six years ago when a memorable defensive display earned a 23-7 victory against the hosts. This time, though, England are 1-0 down in the series and desperate to atone for their below-par performance in Perth.
“There’s no tomorrow for us now,” said Vunipola, back in England’s matchday squad after more than a year’s absence. “We’ve got our backs against the wall and we’ve got to go out and give it all we’ve got. We’ve got nowhere to hide. The Test series is on the line and we know we can still win it. It’s time to show what we’re about as a team. We need to put in a performance we can be proud of.”
Like every other squad member Vunipola found defeat in the first Test against 14 men difficult to take. “You are always wounded when you lose and, mentally, a lot of us were struggling on Saturday night. Credit to them but we had opportunities to put them away and we didn’t do that. We need to take it to them more because we only did that for parts of the last game.”
Vunipola is also aware from touring with the British & Irish Lions in 2017 and 2021 that winning the opening game of a three-Test series is no guarantee of eventual success. It is the kind of situation he relishes and the 2016 tour remains high among his favourite rugby experiences.
“Especially as a forward those are memories you remember: when you’re on your line, fighting for 12 phases. If someone like Henry Arundell scores a 90-metre try I am happy for him but I’m happier that we defended our line. Those are the moments you want to be involved in.
“I think most rugby fans would understand that. Being able to stick in the trenches with your brothers next to you … that is the feeling you started playing rugby for, being there with your mates, having fun.”
He also believes the scrum could prove a key area this Saturday. “It’ll be massive. That was an area of the last game we felt we didn’t take advantage of. There are a lot of things to fix. We have to be better at adapting to the referee and what’s going on in the game.”
England’s defence coach Anthony Seibold, meanwhile, also insisted the visitors can turn the tide, having previously been assistant coach of the Queensland rugby league side who, in 2017, lost their opening State of Origin game 28-4 before roaring back to defeat New South Wales 2-1.
Seibold, a former head coach of Brisbane Broncos, is hoping a resolute English defence will spark a similar turnaround at the Wallabies’ expense. “A lot of times people don’t go to games to watch defence,” he said. “They want to see tries scored, they want to see the magic flick pass. But there’s a real steeliness to good defensive teams and you can tell when a team’s working for each other. I saw long periods of that on Saturday evening.”
With Tom Curry out of the tour following a third concussion in five months, England look poised to turn to Bath’s Sam Underhill to fill the gap at flanker. The head coach, Eddie Jones, also has Lewis Ludlam and Jack Willis in his squad but is understood to be leaning towards a recall for Underhill, who was omitted from the 23 in Perth.
England need someone to challenge Michael Hooper at the breakdown and Seibold says Underhill could be the answer. “Sam’s work rate on and off the ball are excellent. He’s had a disrupted year, having only played one game in the Six Nations and missed out on selection for the first Test, but he’ll be in the frame.” The winger Jonny May will not feature in the second Test as he continues his recovery from the lingering effects of Covid.