Sunday 21 January 2018

All Blacks show class to quash England fightback


Steve James

A quite stunning, absorbing Test. England might have suffered their first defeat of the QBE internationals series, but it was, by some considerable distance, their most impressive performance.

England now have a forward pack that can strike fear into an opposition, especially those visiting Twickenham. And those forwards somehow managed to drag England back into a game that looked horribly lost when New Zealand were 17-3 up inside the first quarter.

But a powerful scrummage, a driving line-out and a masochistic desire at every contact ensured that this was a match to remember, with the crowd providing the most fervent atmosphere of the three autumn matches.

That New Zealand prevailed was simply down to their superior skill set and greater pace. They were just so much sharper in attack. Wing Julian Savea scored two tries, Kieran Read scored another and though the No 8 was shown a yellow card and made a mistake in allowing England their only try from Joe Launchbury, he still exerted a huge influence on the match with his unique skills.

England's No 8 Billy Vunipola was not too bad either, but in a very different way, adding balance to England's back row. Alongside him Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood were wonderful, as Richie McCaw's poaching abilities at the breakdown were largely neutered, with New Zealand in general struggling with England's numbers there and their sealing off of the ball.

The front row was excellent too, with hooker Dylan Hartley again impressing before departing injured. Meanwhile, Owen Farrell had another mixed afternoon. Mike Brown was England's outstanding back again, but there was a creativity and speed of thought to New Zealand's backs that set them some distance apart. Charles Piutau was almost as impressive as Savea with his pace and menace, and, when it mattered most towards the end, Ma'a Nonu showed all his experience, with a lovely offload to put Savea away.

The All Blacks have now won 13 from 13 this year, with Ireland to come next weekend. Surely they cannot slip up as they did here last year in their final match. Of course, they can be upset up front as England showed here, but they are just so clinical when presented with opportunities that tries will always come.

They led 20-16 at half-time, a scoreline with which England would have been delighted, given they were 14 points down inside that first quarter.

New Zealand had scored within two minutes through wing Savea, after some brilliant skills from Read. The ball had been worked left and it had gone to ground but Read picked up and ran towards the touchline where he attracted three defenders. His pass back inside to Savea was sublime and the winger had a clear run to the line.

Dan Carter converted, and though Farrell soon exchanged penalties with him, New Zealand soon scored again, this time through Read himself. The bust down the middle was made by tight-head prop Owen Franks, who cut a delightful angle off Brodie Retallick. The ball went right and Israel Dagg put Read clear.

Then came England's response as they set the tone with driving lineouts. It was the calmness and decisiveness with which they operated so that was so impressive. First it appeared that Vunipola had scored, but referee Craig Joubert asked the wrong question of the television match official – asking "try or no try?" rather than "is there any reason why I cannot award the try?" – and it was disallowed. It was one of those that any rugby player instinctively knows was a score even if there was not conclusive video evidence to prove as much.

The pressure continued. And when from a scruffy England scrummage Read knocked on, Launchbury picked up to dive over. Farrell converted and added two more penalties, as New Zealand were suddenly pressurised into mistakes. The game, and its momentum, had changed dramatically.

New Zealand had lost Carter on the occasion of his 100th cap after 25 minutes with a leg injury and on 32 minutes Read was sent to the sin-bin for diving at the side of a ruck in New Zealand's 22. A warning had been issued and Read was the next to offend.

New Zealand's scrummage had been under pressure, and England were further heartened by the exit of both visiting props – Tony Woodcock at the interval, and Franks soon afterwards – but still they could not score in the short period while Read was still absent.

Aaron Cruden, on for Carter, hit a post with a penalty but Farrell reduced the deficit to 20-19 when Chris Ashton was blatantly impeded by replacement Wyatt Crockett after kicking ahead. Seven minutes later England took the lead with another Farrell penalty. Memories of last year's victory were being stirred.

But New Zealand had begun to realise that wrestling England's forwards was not bringing rewards. Their tackles were sharper and they looked more for territory. You sensed that if an opportunity arose, they would take it. They duly did, as Nonu set up Savea, despite Brown's brilliant tackle. Cruden converted, and then added a penalty with nine minutes to go.

And that was that. The victory for New Zealand was deserved, but so too should be the plaudits for England. They are young and, in parts, inexperienced and this was undoubtedly a step forward against the best side in the world.

Scorers – England: J Launchbury try, O Farrell con, 5 pens. New Zealand: J Savea 2 tries, K Read try, D Carter 2 cons, pen, A Cruden con, 2 pens.

England: M Brown; C Ashton, J Tomkins (A Goode 76), B Twelvetrees, B Foden; O Farrell (T Flood 67), L Dickson (B Youngs 65); J Marler (M Mullan 76), D Hartley (T Youngs 50), D Cole (D Wilson 76); J Launchbury (G Parling 46), C Lawes; T Wood, C Robshaw, B Vunipola (B Morgan 57).

New Zealand: I Dagg; C Piutau (R Crotty 71), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; D Carter (A Cruden 25), A Smith (T Kerr-Barlow 71); T Woodcock (W Crockett 40), K Mealamu (D Coles 62), O Franks (C Faumuina 42); B Retallick (L Romano 69), S Whitelock; L Messam (S Luatua 67), R McCaw, K Read.

Referee: C Joubert (South Africa)


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