Tuesday, 6 November 2012

1988: England v Australia (Rugby Union)

Sport had an uncanny way of seeping into my consciousness during the 1980s. Take rugby union for example. Sat minding my own business one Saturday in 1985, I soon became engrossed in a Five Nations match between Wales and England at Cardiff. As a 9-year-old English boy, the result that day may have been far from ideal (England lost 24-15), and the mistake made by Chris Martin on that April afternoon was mind-blowingly inept, but the sport had managed to grab my attention, so much so that I was disappointed that it was the final Five Nations match of the season. Mind you, the England team at the time were hardly world beaters, so it probably spared me further embarrassment for a year at least.

Since their Grand Slam in 1980 and two second placed finishes in 1981 and 1982, England had been poor to woeful in the championship. Wooden spoons in 1983 and 1987, and just five wins out of twenty in matches between 1983-1987 highlighted that England were in a sorry state, not ideal for a young lad trying to get into the game. The shameful showing at the 1987 World Cup was surely the nadir, the point where things simply could not get any worse. Waking up very early in hospital after an operation to remove my tonsils, I was devastated by the nature of England's defeat to Wales in the quarter final. Luckily for my fellow ward mates my throat was too sore to complain loudly.

And then the green shoots of recovery. Geoff Cooke's appointment as manager and Roger Uttley's as coach led to an improved performance in the 1988 Five Nations championship: a narrow 10-9 defeat in Paris; a drab but effective 9-6 win at Murrayfield. However, it was the second half performance against Ireland at Twickenham that really got the juices flowing. Trailing 3-0 at half-time, all of a sudden a constipated England seemed to have fully dosed up on laxatives, running in six tries in a stunning 35-3 turnaround (Chris Oti scoring a hat trick). It is said to be the game when the 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' anthem was properly adopted by the Twickenham faithful, as a previously bored English crowd - England had scored just two tries in their previous three matches at HQ - were swept away by the expansive rugby before their eyes. Was this a false dawn though?

Another piece of the jigsaw was put in place prior to the Australia match in November 1988, when Will Carling was appointed as England skipper. Aged just 22, Carling was the youngest man ever given the role of England captain, handed the poisoned chalice with assurances that his appointment was long-term (until the 1991 World Cup at least). Many felt he wouldn't get that far, justifiably so seeing as since Bill Beaumont's retirement in 1982, England had chucked the captaincy round like, well a rugby ball. In all nine players had led England post-Beaumont (Steve Smith, Peter Wheeler, John Scott, Paul Dodge, Nigel Melville, Mike Harrison, Richard Hill, John Orwin, and Richard Harding, in case you're wondering). Hardly surprising then that Tony Bodley, writing in the Daily Express, cast doubts upon the England selectors: "Will Carling has been handed the England rugby captaincy for three years. But he'll he lucky to keep the job for three months if he's treated anything like recent skippers." All the best Will.

Australia for their part were hardly crushing all before them on their 1988 tour of England. Losses to London (10-21), Northern Division (9-15) and the South-West Division (10-26) were hardly ideal preparation for their Twickenham examination, although they had bounced back with a victory over the Midland Division (25-18) in Michael Lynagh's first game on the tour. This win did little to impress Australian coach Bob Dwyer though, who lambasted his team after their performance: "That was nothing to write home about. We did so many things wrong." The form of winger David Campese was an encouragement though in a dirty match against the England Students, which saw a punch-up lasting nearly two minutes. Campese ran in two tries, and added three conversions and two penalties to his tally, as the Australians easily won 36-13. The patchy form of the tourists gave a glimmer of hope to England, and the press in particular. Tony Bodley was almost spot-on with his thoughts on the forthcoming match: "England must not lose their nerve. They know the Australians can be beaten and I reckon they could be good enough for a ten points margin."

The lead-up to the match was dominated by talk of the new captain Carling and the three debutants in the England side - lock Paul Ackford, scrum-half Dewi Morris, and winger Andrew Harriman - with Harriman the centre of attention. The Nigerian-born 24-year-old was labelled the Playboy Prince by the Daily Mirror on the morning of the game, due to his reportedly lavish lifestyle. The chartered accountant was rumoured to have spent £1000 on a night out with friends, had a love for fast cars, and was a jet-setter having been to visit his girlfriend four times in America that year. Harriman was keen to rid himself of this tag though (and that of a specialist Sevens player), and was working well under coach Dick Best at Harlequins, after a bust-up between the pair in January had led to Harriman walking out of the club. His searing pace had already harmed the Australians in their defeat to London, and he was seen as an ideal replacement for the injured Oti. Thirteen of England's starting XV on November 5 had tasted victory over the Australians on the tour (only Brian Moore and Dean Richards hadn't), so hopes were high going into the clash.

However, the Australians had not been beaten by England since 1982, and could call on a lot of experience in their side. Only centre Brad Girvan was making his debut, and the team led by Nick Farr-Jones had seven survivors from their 1984 Grand Slam tour of the British Isles. Of psychological importance was the fact that Australia had recently beaten England 2-0 in Australia (22-16 and 28-8), although the nature of those defeats had rankled with England, due to their perception of referee David Bishop's performances in the two tests of the Australian tour. The north-south divide in interpretation of rugby rules was evident in both of England's defeats, leading to many free kicks and penalties being awarded by New Zealander Bishop. England were not exactly holding back on their opinions of the Bishop appointment, prop Paul Rendall sarcastically (or maybe seriously) pointing out that "The Wallabies count on him more than on kicker Michael Lynagh", Cooke noting "The Australians will obviously feel more comfortable than us." Bodley writing in an article on the day of the match had somehow picked up on this negative feeling towards the man in charge: "Bishop, in charge again, is not exactly, a welcome guest today." Whinging poms or right to feel wronged? Fortunately after the match, no one was talking about the referee.

The first half started brightly for England. Although full back Jonathan Webb missed a simple penalty early on, he made no mistake after seven minutes when the Australians were penalised for killing the ball in the ruck. But soon after the doubts returned for English supporters, as a try by the posts from Gary Leeds was converted by Lynagh to give the visitors a 6-3 lead. The gap was soon extended to six points, due to a Lynagh penalty after debutant Morris was caught offside. Morris would soon atone for his error though.

Just prior to Morris' redemption, Andrew Harriman blew his big moment. With the try-line beckoning, Harriman knocked-on, the sort of opportunity one would dream of in their sleep, but the kind of outcome that would awaken you in a cold sweat. Fortunately, from the resultant Australian scrum, flanker Andy Robinson charged down the attempted clearance, leaving Morris the relatively simple chance to score a try on his debut. It all happened so quickly that the BBC missed the dramatic incident, still replaying Harriman's moment of woe. Webb converted to make it 9-9, and as the half-time whistle went, Twickenham and the watching television audience could catch their breath and prepare for what would undoubtedly be a tense second half.

If we were hoping for an easy time in the second half then we were soon rudely aware that this was not to be. From an intercepted Webb pass, Campese broke away 70 yards to score a deflating try, and although Lynagh missed the conversion, as an England rugby fan brought up on a diet of avoidable defeats, the negativity swept through my body. There was something different about today though. This England team, and the intense atmosphere of a success starved Twickenham crowd, combined to bring hope back into view. Brian Moore's long lineout reached Robinson, who fed Simon Halliday, and after a typical surging run by Carling (not that we knew this at the time), Paul Ackford's sloppy pass was well scooped up by Rob Andrew, and Rory Underwood had a race for the corner. James Grant tackled Underwood well, although the English winger did manage to get the ball over the try line. In the modern era Underwood's try would instantly be referred to the video referee, but this was 1988 and times were different. Underwood's try was given (even looking at it now though it looks slightly iffy) and England had levelled the score at 13-13.

The Twickenham crowd were now fully warming to their task, as they sensed that momentum was building for the home team. Rob Andrew thought he had given England the lead, but his try was disallowed for a double movement. England would not be denied though. A long Australian clearance was almost knocked on by Andrew, who recovered to set Harriman free. His short run and pass released Dean Richards, the English number eight breaking superbly through the centre of the Wallabies defence and after good work from Egerton, Moore and Robinson, Underwood was again off for the corner. This time there was no doubt, as Underwood dived across the line for his 13th international try. Webb's conversion gave England a 19-13 lead and they were in dream land. Even more so when an Australian infringement at a ruck gave England another three points as Webb slotted over a penalty, and at 22-13 England were sitting pretty.

All sports enthusiasts will often tell you that things are never that easy however, and that their team always does things the hard way. So it came as no surprise to me when Australia narrowed the gap through a converted Grant try, as the last few minutes turned into a torturous period where time seemed to stand still. An Australian lineout in the England half did little to calm me down, as my fear turned to blind panic, until Jeff Probyn managed to rob Steve Tuynman of the ball and turn the ball over to Morris. The scrum-half fed Carling, who set off on another mazy run, perforating the fragile Aussie defence before setting up Simon Halliday for his first try for England. The decisive score came at a cost, as Carling was wiped out a split second after releasing his fellow centre, and had to leave the field much to his disgust (he had to be harangued from the field by Bishop and the team doctor). Webb finished off the formalities and a minute or so later the enormity of what I had just witnessed hit me. England had pulled off a memorable 28-19 victory.

What a pleasant way to spend a Saturday, an unexpected bonus to see an England rugby team playing with so much drive and energy (at least I managed to watch the match - coach Uttley had to miss the game due to his role of Head of Physical Education at Harrow School. Crazy days). Obviously the press went into overdrive after the match: "Glory boys!" and "Brave England find the road to glory" headlined the Mirror and Express. The players too were swept along in the tide of goodwill felt after such an inspiring victory. Rory Underwood declared that "This is the best England side I have played in during my five years in the team", whilst Nick Farr-Jones bigged-up England's chances in the next Five Nations championship: "I believe Will Carling's side will win the Five Nations championship. In fact I can only see France posing any sort of threat." Morris' performance at scrum half was lauded, as well as contributions from Carling, Ackford and Harriman. The future looked bright.

As ever with a team on the rise, England had to suffer a share of body blows along the way. A crushing 12-9 defeat in Cardiff at the conclusion of the 1989 Five Nations championship denied England the chance of claiming the title, after two wins and a draw before their Welsh nightmare. Morris' star had completely burnt out come the end of the 89 championship, and it would be a further three years before he was seen again in an England shirt. He fared better than Harriman though, who never did add to his one cap gained at Twickenham. Ackford went on to win 22 caps for his country, culminating in a World Cup final at the very ground he made his debut. Carling went from strength to strength, presiding over one of the most successful periods in English rugby history.

1989 was upsetting enough, though it had nothing on the despair felt after losing the Calcutta Cup, Triple Crown, Grand Slam and championship at Murrayfield in 1990. Finally Carling's men got over the line in 1991, and in a memorable Grand Slam year they were narrowly beaten in the World Cup final. The team that beat them? Australia of course. So although this piece is a celebration of that famous day in 1988 when England beat the Australians, it should be remembered that ultimately they had the final word, as a lot of Australian sporting teams have tended to do during my lifetime. This shouldn't take away anything from November 5, 1988 though, as at the time it was a heart warming performance that confirmed to us all that the second half of the Ireland match was no fluke. And it provided a rugby nation that had little cheer from the mid-80s onwards with renewed hope for the future. It was the start of something special, and for that - and the fact that we actually beat Australia at rugby - it should be fondly remembered.


  1. A landmark game in many ways. It was this team and this captain that would take the England rugby team into the wider public conscious, and ultimately lead the sport to professionalism.

    How scrawny these amateur players look...

  2. As a fledgling England fan I sat with my dad and mate Ben in the old north stand for this game, i still possess the programme and my plastic seat number. The stand was knocked down shortly after this game to make way for the beginnings of the new stadium, therefor I don't feel too guilty about keeping a little memento from the day.
    I firmly believe that this was the start of things. Along with Oti,s hat-trick against Ireland earlier in the year(I was also there!) England were starting to show determination, desire and dare i say it creativity, all culminating in a dreamy night 15 years later in Sydney. Twenty four spring cleans later the one VHS tape i still own is labelled "Eng Vs Australia 1988" !