Tries from Manu Tuilagi and Nick Cummins marked a game that was decided by kicking, or rather England’s stubborn refusal to do so as they elected to chase winning tries from a series of second-half penalties.
Despite this admirable tack, a scoreless second half for Stuart Lancaster’s side exposed their limitations, his charges making repeated unforced mistakes at crucial moments despite some strong running and carrying.
The second period also showed the Australian backs’ ability to resist and a fine performance in the scrum from their underrated forwards and youngster Michael Hooper in particular.
England meanwhile must improve their decision making and concentration with South Africa and New Zealand to come.
It was an important win for Australia as they showed discipline and guile in the face of some incessant spells of English pressure.
The first half was mostly a cagey affair as the Wallabies looked sharper in the scrum and at the business end, while England relied on three Toby Flood penalties to lead 9-6 despite coming off second-best at the breakdowns.
And a sloppy kick from Danny Care on 35 minutes allowed rapid winger Nick Cummins to scuttle through for his first international try. It was deserved in that Australia had come closest to crossing the line, repelled by some stern defence from the hosts, who had themselves looked smart while carrying but lacked a cutting edge.
There was a shade of controversy about the score as Nick Phipps’ pass to Cummins seemed forward, but any possible error was cancelled out soon afterwards.
Conceding a try seemed to spark England creatively as Care’s decision to quickly tap a penalty saw Tom Johnson release Manu Tuilagi, whose dive appeared to have been held up on the line, only for a generous video call seeing the try given.
It was a risk from Care – Flood probably would have kicked the three points – but one that atoned for his lazy kick four minutes earlier. It was also Tuilagi’s eighth England try at the age of 21.
That came seconds before half-time to see the hosts lead 14-11 at the interval.
Australia came out of the blocks quickest as Berrick Barnes – who had kicked the rest of their points via a 13th minute drop goal and a 31st minute penalty – showed both classy hands and feet as he quickly drew level with a penalty created by a clever stabbed kick.
England, meanwhile, were still committing basic handling errors, a promising running move down the left halted by a Charlie Sharples knock-on; they were also losing the battles in the scrum, as a Joe Marler misdemeanour resulted in a move from which a Barnes penalty put Australia back ahead.
Harlequins prop Marler was swiftly replaced by Saracens counterpart Mako Vunipola, but the Wallabies were still ripping into England as Barnes pulled the strings.
A knock-on from Geoff Parling gifted Barnes another three points as they went 20-14 up, which was followed by the clever impact substitution as Joe Launchbury was brought into the play. The giant Wasps lock immediately launched into Australia, his towering catch starting a move from which England put some heavy pressure near the line.
Suddenly the momentum shifted as England used their power to bombard the Wallabies, and they thought they had touched down just before the hour mark, although the video ref showed Thomas Waldrom had dropped the ball as he spun to the line after a monstrous drive.
Australia were on the back foot and suddenly they were losing the scrums too, as Launchbury and Vunipola added power and pace to England’s play.
But for all their improvement, England’s second half was still scoreless with 15 minutes left. Indeed, Australia nearly extended their lead as a 50-yard Barnes penalty shaved the wrong side of the bar – 23-14 may have been too much.
England were looking to wow the crowd, foregoing another penalty to try with a tap-and-go, Waldrom and then Tom Youngs coming agonisingly short as Kurtley Beale and co showed great fight on their line.
Perhaps they should have kicked – had they done so with their line-out penalties earlier they may have been ahead again – and with 10 minutes left they desperately needed a converted try.
But Australia’s backs are used to some of the nimblest and toughest opposition in the world in Super Rugby, and they were able to resist England’s attempts to pass and carry through in the latter stages.
England continued their admirable policy to hunt for the try, Flood again electing to look for touch from a kickable spot, but continued handling errors and stray behaviour in the ruck, coupled with Australia’s stern defence, saw the Wallabies hold on for a solid win.