So this was the big one. Always is. The chance for England to measure themselves against the best team in the rugby world. Not World Cup winners that often, strangely enough. But usually the best. The All Blacks.
The game marked the 100th cap for Dan Carter, best fly half in the world. Who knows how many he would have won without the injuries of recent years. And, in keeping with that theme, he was forced off after 25 minutes.
Last year, in an extraordinary aberration, England raised their game to new heights and won the match 38-21. Could that be repeated? Somehow I didn’t feel it could, but I did feel England would give a good account of themselves, after the ups and downs of the games against Australia and Argentina (both won, incidentally).
And they did – while losing, 22 points to 30.
The game started badly for England. The ABs scored within a couple of minutes, when after a well contested lineout, the Kiwi No 8, Kieran Read, about to be forced into touch, somehow passed the ball to winger Julian Savea, who stormed through what remained of England’s defence. A classic example of New Zealand’s skill and clinical finishing, the moment an opportunity appears.
It got worse for England. After 17 minutes, New Zealand prop Owen Franks broke through England’s defence, sparking a move which led to Kieran Read scoring in the right corner. England were 17-3 down and it looked like they just couldn’t cope with the pace and precision of the All Blacks’ game.
But then they turned it round. The catalyst was a penalty that captain Chris Robshaw decided to kick to touch for a lineout near the NZ try line. A good call. It roused the crowd and led to a siege of the New Zealand line that went through three penalties and a disallowed try (no-one, even the television match official (TMO) could see the ball in the melee for that one) before England finally scuffed over for a try by Joe Launchbury. That was TMO’d too, but got the nod. The pressure and the score led to a shift of momentum. It was now with England, and by half time the score was 16-20. Game on!
The second half began with more England pressure, trying to punch through the centre of New Zealand’s defence. The pressure earned a couple of penalties, converted by Owen Farrell (100% on the day). England went ahead, 22-20.
And then the momentum shifted back to the All Blacks again. Maybe they were stung by going behind. Maybe England relaxed slightly having gone ahead (your mentality will change when you’ve reached your primary goal). Maybe the substitutions that tend to start at around 60 minutes made a difference. In fact, it’s not maybe. I think the crucial change was the enforced one for England: hooker Dylan Hartley coming off at 50 minutes, injured, Tom Youngs replacing him. Now Tom is a fine player – played for the Lions in the summer. But his lineout throwing isn’t as good as Hartley’s. This had been one of the strengths of England’s game, gave them a lot of possession. Suddenly they lost three on their own throws. Expected possession forfeited. Thrown onto the defensive. Uncertainty creeps in.
I think this was the pivotal moment of the game, and New Zealand exploited it brilliantly. Another try from Savea, brought about by some of that unexpected possession, with a superb offload from Ma’a Nonu releasing him.
The game died a bit after that. England lost their belief that they could win. The All Blacks closed things down. Game over. 30-22 to the ABs. Deserved, but a close run thing.
So, a good performance by England, but not quite good enough, against the best in the world. The forwards can hold their heads up – they were magnificent, and caused New Zealand all sorts of problems. Launchbury and Courtney Lawes in the second row were immense. Courtney’s learnt to channel his energy into the right places. The backs tackled well, and Billy Twelvetrees and Mike Brown made some good yards; but the fluency of passing that you need to cut up a top class international defence wasn’t quite there. Just look at the three New Zealand tries to see how it is done.
The backs not quite matching the forwards isn’t a new problem for England. It’s been there pretty much all the time I’ve been watching England, the only exception being the team under Clive Woodward in the run up to the 2003 World Cup, which we won. There’s a lot of young talent now, but still some work to do.
As for the Quins boys, Chris Robshaw led from the front as ever, through the Autumn series. Hard to fault. Mike Brown was superb at full back: catching everything, making more yards than anyone with his sharp breaks, tackling like a demon, totally up for it. Joe Marler, in the front row, was on a learning curve, but was outstanding against the All Blacks, part of the brilliant forward effort and punching holes in their defence. Danny Care didn’t get much of a look in. Third choice right now. Harsh, but he’ll just have to lead Quins to Premiership glory!
Chris took a hit on his eye during the game. Didn’t stop him.
The Autumn internationals aren’t over yet, although they are for England. Ireland play New Zealand next weekend. If they are as bad as they were last night against Australia – losing 15-32, but lucky to get away with that – then they will get absolutely stuffed. But I suspect they’ll regroup. Too much class in the team to be that bad two weeks in a row?