Wednesday 20 November 2019

Plan bears fruit as Kiwis sliced apart

England 19 New Zealand 7

Mako Vunipola and George Ford react to England winning a penalty against New Zealand in yesterday’s World Cup semi-final. Photo: Getty Images
Mako Vunipola and George Ford react to England winning a penalty against New Zealand in yesterday’s World Cup semi-final. Photo: Getty Images

Andy Bull

They say it used to take the great Japanese swordsmiths a year to forge their finest swords. Eddie Jones spent two-and-a-half crafting the weapon he used to cut up the All Blacks. He had been working on it since they announced the draw for this World Cup in May 2017, heating it, honing it till it had the heft and sharpness it needed for this one specific job.

This was the first time England had ever beaten New Zealand in a World Cup, yes, but also only eighth in over a century of Test rugby. You can count off the years: '36, '73, '83, '93, '02, '03, '12, and now, the most famous of the lot, in 2019.

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England's Manu Tuilagi scores a try against New Zealand. Photo: AP
England's Manu Tuilagi scores a try against New Zealand. Photo: AP

Till yesterday, there were barely a hundred Englishmen who knew what it took to beat them. Jones, though, had been here before, when he was coaching Australia in 2003 and they beat them 22-10 at this very same stage.

He's always been convinced he knew how to do it. And while this wasn't his victory, it had his fingerprints all over it. You could see them in the minutes before kick-off, when England lined up into a V formation to face the Haka, Owen Farrell at the centre and his 22 team-mates in rows either side, the last men in the line standing deep into New Zealand's half. Nigel Owens asked them to step back. Joe Marler wasn't having it.

The prop shot Owens a filthy grin and held his ground. It was all done to discomfort the All Blacks, to let them know England were going to contest every last little piece of the ground.

Jones, who said he wanted to put "the gods of rugby" on the back foot, was a niggly, hot-tempered hooker himself in his playing days. And you could see his influence too, in the little ruse England used at the kick-off, when George Ford switched the ball to Farrell at the last minute, and he booted the ball deep the other way to the direction everyone was expecting.

England's Sam Underhill is tackled by New Zealand's Brodie Retallick. Photo: PA
England's Sam Underhill is tackled by New Zealand's Brodie Retallick. Photo: PA

That was the feint, they followed it up with an uppercut. That first 20 minutes were England's best stretch of attacking rugby since Martin Johnson's side were in their prime. You would need to coin new collective nouns to describe the way England played in that quarter, when they threw a confusion of passes, their hands moving so fast you gasped to watch it, flickering the ball one way and another till it looked like a pinball ricocheting off the flippers.

They came at New Zealand from a bewilderment of angles, switching, cutting, dummying, from the left, the right, straight on and every degree in between.

Here came Elliott Daly, slipping through tackles, and Anthony Watson, stepping around them, Kyle Sinckler tossing offloads, Jamie George barrelling down the wing, Courtney Lawes charging the hard yards, and Manu Tuilagi diving for the line. The try took 97 seconds. "The team that took the game won the game," Steve Hansen said later. Or, as Mike Tyson famously put it: "Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth."

It took New Zealand 20 minutes to rediscover their plan but England were a step ahead, and by the time the All Blacks steadied themselves, they had already shifted the emphasis on to their defence.

The commonplace wisdom about beating New Zealand is that you need to score a heap of points to do it, because you've no chance of shutting them out. Tell that to England's defence coach, John Mitchell. He should know, since he was the All Blacks' head coach for four years. Up in the grandstands, we were all checking the records.

Turns out that the last time New Zealand failed to score in the first half was also the last time England beat them, at Twickenham in 2012. And you have to go back to 1968 to find the last Test they won from that position. At the break, England led 10-0. Only halfway through, it felt as if they were more than halfway there.

Generations from now they will still be talking about some of those tackles. The All Blacks' grandchildren will still be telling their kids to behave or else Sam Underhill will come and get them. That if they get out of bed he'll come flying out of the wardrobe with his arms spread wide ready to knock them clean off their feet, just like he did Kieran Read. They will talk, too, of Manu Tuilagi and Tom Curry and Mako Vunipola, who went rampaging around the field as if they were sacking an enemy village.

And then there was Maro Itoje, who had the game of his life. Itoje has always talked like a man who has had a sense of his own destiny, as he is sure he is bound for great things. Yesterday he achieved them.

Itoje made 12 tackles, won seven lineouts, and three turnovers. But that doesn't tell you the half of it. He was a one-man highlights reel.

You kept catching glimpses of him, forcing his way through the maul to reach over and wrap his hands around the ball to stop Aaron Smith snapping it out, and soaring into the air at the lineout to grab the ball away from Sam Whitelock, and charging into half a gap after Ford tore the ball off Nepo Laulala, and bent double over a tackled man, rooting around with his hands till he pulled up the ball, like some frenzied prospector digging around for the speck of gold he had spotted in the river mud.

The try England finally conceded came from a ludicrous error, when George tossed the ball over Itoje and straight to Ardie Savea at a five-metre lineout. It was the flaw that made the rest of it seem all the more perfect.

The only way New Zealand could get back into the game was when England let them. And by the end of it all, they were getting so desperate they were giving away turnovers, and penalties, coughing up handling errors.

Here were the famous All Blacks, cut to ribbons, and the bits strewn about the pitch under the cold, black night sky. "Sometime's sports not fair," Steve Hansen admitted, "but tonight was. We just got beaten by a better side."

Scorers - England: Tuilagi try, Ford 4 pens, Farrell con. New Zealand: Savea try, Mo'unga con.

England: E Daly; A Watson, M Tuilagi (J Joseph 74), O Farrell (capt), J May (H Slade 45); G Ford, B Youngs (W Heinz 64); M Vunipola (J Marler 70), J George (L Cowan-Dickie 70), K Sinckler (D Cole 47); M Itoje, C Lawes (G Kruis 55); T Curry, S Underhill, B Vunipola.

New Zealand: B Barrett; S Reece, J Goodhue (SB Williams 56), A Lienert-Brown, G Bridge (J Barrett 50); R Mo'unga, A Smith (TJ Peranara 55); J Moody (O Tuungafasi 62), C Taylor (D Coles 50), N Laulala (A Ta'avao 62); B Retallick, S Whitelock (P Tuipulotu 67); S Barrett (S Cane h-t), A Savea, K Read (capt).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).

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