England and Australia renew old rivalries for the Cook Cup on Saturday, with both teams and head coaches determined to finish their autumn with a flourish after a testing 2018.
The year has not been kind to either side. England have mustered only five wins in 11 (12 if you include the Barbarians success, which head coach Eddie Jones refuses to).
Meanwhile Australia coach Michael Cheika is under intense pressure, with the Wallabies losing eight of their 12 tests, including home defeats to Argentina and twice to Ireland.
It’s seen England slide to 4th in World Rugby’s international rankings while Australia sit in 6th, having climbed one place following last week’s much-needed away win over Italy.
Regardless of form, Jones is taking no chances. After fielding an experimental side that struggled to contain a rampant Japan last weekend, the head coach has restored his big hitters to the match day 23 to welcome Cheika, his old Randwick club mate.
"He's my old mate, he's always at his best when they're under pressure," Jones said of Cheika.
"He loves that, he's a street fighter, so it does make them dangerous but at the same time we've had a tough year too and we don't mind a scrap either, so it should be a good scrap.
"I think they understand where we're strong and we understand where they're strong, and it's going to be a battle of who can take away each other's strengths and find a way to probe their weaknesses."
The old enemies are fairly evenly matched in the history books, with Australia winning 25 to England’s 23 and one draw from the 49 games they’ve played since 1909.
But of late, England have become the Aussies’ bogey team. Under Jones they’ve won the past five encounters, including a clean sweep in a three-match tour Down Under in 2016.
Saturday’s hosts’ most recent success came this time last year, when England chalked up their biggest ever winning margin over the Aussies in a 30-6 victory at Twickenham.
But the men in green and gold – both on the pitch and in the stands – will fondly remember the last time they beat the men in white: a ruthless 33-13 schooling at Twickenham in 2015 which knocked England out of their home World Cup.
A repeat performance this time round would have similarly damaging ramifications for England’s World Cup ambitions next year in Japan.
The big news and big name on the England team sheet is that of Manu Tuilagi. Jones is finally able to name the destructive centre in his matchday 23, with the 27-year-old due to start on the bench.
The Leicester Tigers battering ram has plundered 11 tries in 26 matches for the Red Rose but made just one appearance since 2014. Expect him to cause chaos in the closing stages.
The barnstorming No.8 Nathan Hughes also returns on the bench after suspension and several players who impressed against the All Blacks resume their place in the starting XV, including Sam Underhill, Brad Shields and Mark Wilson.
By contrast a stomach bug has swept through the Aussie camp, with several players and staff believed to be unwell, including pivotal backs Israel Folau and Bernard Foley.
Cheika has named the duo in his starting line-up, along with the influential openside David Pocock who was a potential doubt, but it’s hardly the ideal preparation.
Elsewhere for England, injuries to Chris Ashton and Jack Nowell have paved the way for monstrous winger Joe Cokanasiga – weighing in at 114kg and 1.9m tall – to make his second start for England.
The 21-year-old “English Lomu” scored one and played an influential role for the opening try on his debut last week. At 15/2 for first tryscorer with Betfair he’s well worth backing again.
With conditions expected to be cool but mostly dry and neither side offering the kind of defensive skills on show in Dublin last weekend, fans should be able to look forward to a high scoring affair.
If Australia get in on the act, expect fullback Israel Folau to get on the scoresheet. With 35 tries in 72 caps he’s well overdue a big game and priced at 14/1 with Betfair to score first.
With history and a clean bill of health on their side, England are heavy favourites. William Hill have them best priced at 4/11 with Australia an industry best 3/1 with Black Type.
Australia HT/England FT is tempting at 6/1 with BetVictor – especially if England start as slowly as they did against Japan last week. England HT/Australia FT is 12/1 with Unibet, but that would require Cheika’s men to click in a way they haven’t looked capable of all year.
The margin of victory could provide juicier value and you can get 6/1 with Betway for an England win by just 1-5 points. However, it’s worth bearing in mind the aggregate score over their past five matches is 35-20 to the hosts, perhaps explaining why England by 13+ is so short at 31/20 with Unibet.
If you’re the sentimental type, Australia’s scrum-half Will Genia is due to win his 100th cap and priced at 5/1 with Betfair to score a try at anytime.
While it’s worth noting there’s yet to be a sending off in any of the autumn internationals so far, despite the lawmakers stamping down on dangerous play this season. Fancy a mischievous punt in what will be a hot-tempered affair? A red card is priced at 11/2 with Betway.
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