England overpower Australia in rain-soaked Rugby World Cup quarter-final

It may take several days for them to dry out but England are into the World Cup semi-finals. While monsoonal rain in Auckland initially made this more akin to a game of water polo, there was never any danger of the Red Roses letting victory slip and 29 Tests have now passed since they were beaten.

The conditions were clearly always going to dictate England’s close-quarters approach and quite right, too. Knockout rugby is plainly not decided by aesthetic beauty and it was emphatically not a day for tossing the ball around. With Marlie Packer claiming a short-range hat‑trick, England still scored seven tries without doing anything particularly spectacular.

Even allowing for the fact the first half might have been slightly drier for all involved had it taken place in a car wash, it did not make classic viewing for the neutral. Fair play to the organisers for playing Rihanna’s Umbrella over the public address in the second half but there wasn’t a great deal of fun to be had otherwise.

England’s execution was also a mixed bag at times, even taking into account Australia’s stout resistance and the damp ball. While the industry of Packer and Abbie Ward, allied to the consistent dominance of the Red Roses scrum, was typically admirable and the Wallaroos spent much of the afternoon penned in their own half, it still feels as if this talented squad had more in them.

Job done for England, however, and onwards and upwards to Eden Park this Saturday. Defensively they continue to be tough nuts to crack and Packer had another productive day at the breakdown.

The first half was also memorable for slightly perverse reasons, with the clocks going back in the UK meaning the opening 40 minutes was all but over before it had technically begun. An abbreviated contest would certainly have suited Australia, with the task of halting England’s giant pack clearly an unenviable one.

As early as the eighth minute they were unable to stop a rumbling drive that concluded with Sarah Hunter, on her record-breaking 138th appearance for her country, touching down from a range of about six inches. Emily Scarratt’s conversion made it 7-0 and the chances of England not scoring again for another 20 minutes felt about as remote as the sun coming out.

It did not help that Zoe Aldcroft was sent to the sin-bin for a slightly misjudged clear-out but, even with the deluge having switched from biblical to steady, the Red Roses could not make their overwhelming territorial advantage pay until the Wallaroos were reduced to 14 players by a yellow card for their skipper Shannon Parry.

Having done well to hold up a couple of close-range surges, the depleted Australians were unable to prevent Packer being driven over for another trademark English score. All fine and within the existing laws, of course, but we are reaching the point where the game’s guardians probably need to act to restore a semblance of balance to how teams operate in the opposing 22.

The simple expedient of giving the defending team the throw-in if their opponents opt to kick for the corner would encourage more imagination and potentially less close-range head banging, though it could also result in more time-consuming shots at goal or additional scrums. The prevailing trend, either way, is getting out of hand and is doing little to foster neutral interest in the game.

For now, though, England can carry on regardless and play to their super strength. Packer is as good as anyone from a couple of metres out but there was also plenty to admire about the flanker’s second try, a neat inside pass from Zoe Harrison sending her teammate on an unstoppable burst to the line. The only shame, with the weather drying up, was that there wasn’t slightly more of that incisiveness, unless England are deliberately keeping their powder dry.

They have enough firepower for that potentially to be the case but it was only late on, with Australia tiring and the rain having ceased, that they exerted the kind of remorseless control they would have ideally wanted. There remains a nagging sense that on dry days against good opposition, without playing into the hands of expansive opponents like New Zealand, they will have to be slightly sharper, both in their execution and the tempo at which they play.

Nit-picking, maybe, and watching the tireless Ward, the consistent Alex Matthews and the ebullient Packer cross for further driven maul scores, it remains clear their future opponents will first need to stop England at source to deny them a first World Cup since 2014. If the Red Roses simply keep trucking on as they have been, they will probably still emerge triumphant. Lift it by another gear or two, though, and no one will get close to them.