Lancaster’s men must start hard and fast to exploit Wallabies’ woes

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If improving England get things right today, it is more than conceivable they could go on and inflict a record defeat over Australia at Twickenham.

Yet such is the paradoxical nature of the current international game that, equally so, Stuart Lancaster knows his side may yet be on the receiving end of an almighty hammering.

Such a fine line that needs to be tread in London this afternoon and the key will be in the opening exchanges.

Australia, shell-shocked by the magnitude of their 33-6 defeat to France a week ago, are saying all the right things about putting things right when they come up against the Red Rose.

It is what you would expect from such a fiercely proud and competitive nation which has habitually proven itself as the world’s finest.

However, the fact remains, after also enduring the ignominy of losing at home to Scotland earlier this year, they are currently out of sorts, low on confidence and increasingly fallible.

If England can seize on their opponents’ hesitancy early on, they could set the platform to far eclipse their previous best return, that epic 35-18 win at headquarters just two years ago.

They have the firepower, especially with the return of dynamic winger Chris Ashton from suspension and given Alex Goode proved last week against Fiji that he can now provide a twin playmaking threat from full-back.

Ashton will hunt on the inside shoulders of both him and fly-half Toby Flood to cut open any lax Australia defence up the middle.

But what happened in the opening stages against Fiji – when England were so loose and ill-disciplined – has to serve as a cautionary tale to Lancaster’s men.

A better side than the Pacific Islanders – let’s say Australia, for example – would have punished them mercilessly for those early errors, which were ample.

It started from the first whistle, when England failed to deal with the kick-off, and carried on for a mistake-ridden 20 minute period.

They showed too much ambition in possession while deep in their own territory, saw scrappy lineout ball hit the deck, conceded free-kicks at the scrum, had Danny Care sin-binned and it was only down to Metuisala Talebula’s wayward penalty kicking that they did not go behind.

The Wallabies, for all their travails, will relish such ineptitude if it is afforded today and certainly not let England escape to record a 54-12 win.

They will only need the merest sniff of weakness to act as a catalyst to get their own performances back up to scratch.

Granted, their famously unrelenting media has, quite rightly, lambasted them for that no-show in Paris and there is a fear in some Australian quarters that they could succumb even more heavily today.

Worryingly, they have not scored a single try in either of their last two Tests and recorded just 12 in 13 games compared to a huge 43 in 14 fixtures beforehand.

Yet it would be complete folly to write them off. This Australian team has the capacity to return to its peak just as quickly as it hit its nadir especially if offered any encouragement by their hosts.

Let’s not forget they held the All Blacks to a draw recently and, with the return of their own flying wideman in Digby Ioane, they offer more potency than of late.

Berrick Barnes being restored to full-back for his first Wallaby start since perforating a lung in South Africa will also bring more dynamism and creativity to their attacking potential.

Much has been made of England’s expected dominance in the scrum and, indeed, Australia are still bereft of a number of key forwards including talismanic captain David Pocock.

But Benn Robinson is back at tighthead and he has fond memories of driving England back during wins in 2008 and 2009.

England’s highly-rated Dan Cole, who with Ashton, Flood and Tom Palmer is one of only four survivors from the starting team that vanquished Australia at Twickenham two years ago, may not have it all his own way in the front-row.

If Robinson can get the upper hand in the early scrummaging exchanges, it will give his side a massive lift.

That is why it is so vital for Lancaster’s side to start hard, fast and, most importantly, with accuracy to ensure their visitors do not gain any sort of belief.

If they do that, prey on Australia’s fragility and mix up their attacking play once they have secured domination, it could easily become a points fest for Lancaster’s England.

Meanwhile, Australia fly-half Kurtley Beale has insisted an upcoming court appearance will not distract him today.

He will face an assault charge in Brisbane’s magistrates court on February 6 for allegedly hitting a pub bouncer, the Queensland Justice Department has confirmed.

The 23-year-old said after Australia’s captain’s run at Twickenham that he needed to speak to his lawyer because he had not heard anything official.

But Beale vowed the off-field issues would not affect his display.

“I’ve got an important job to do and I don’t want to let my team-mates down (by allowing anything to distract me),” said Beale.

“My role is to give the boys direction.”

Beale scored two tries at Twickenham in 2010 but his sizzling performance was overshadowed by Ashton, whose memorable try instigated from behind England’s own line, was the highlight of a vintage Red Rose display.