Jack Hart was at Twickenham on Saturday to witness England’s defeat against New Zealand at close hand and has told Impact Sport why England ought to take a lot of encouragement from their display…
Media reports of sporting events rarely give accurate accounts of what really happened, as it happened. The score-line is all that matters. Here is an example of some numbers then: England 21 – 24 New Zealand. It is testament to the All Black’s enduring dominance that this is what journalists focused on when reporting Saturday’s encounter at Twickenham, quick to reiterate that this is the fourth successive time that New Zealand have beaten England this year, and their fifth consecutive victory since September 2012.
Yet there is so much more to the story than this alludes to. England showed real strength in depth and character by running the world champions so close in this enthralling encounter. In some positions, Stuart Lancaster was forced to field his third-choice players. Injuries happen and this not an excuse, but it is a back-handed complement to the determination and sheer bloody grit showed by Lancaster’s men. As stated, media reports focus on different aspects of a game: if you want to read an unashamedly biased report of how yesterday’s defeat showcased England’s strengths, read on.
England dominated the opening exchanges in Saturday’s crisp November weather. Early pressure and an attacking attitude forced the All Black defence onto the back-foot, with Lancaster’s men eager to play with ball-in-hand rather than kick for territory. Andy Farrell, England’s attacking coach, clearly had it in mind to take on New Zealand at their own game and it worked within minutes. Forwards built phases across the pitch, the ball was shipped down the line and Jonny May, England’s electric winger, only needed a moment’s delay by Conrad Smith to exploit a gap. Shown the outside by Smith, May split the defensive line and burned Israel Dagg on the outside to give a 5-0 lead. Owen Farrell missed the conversion, but English heads remained high; it was a damned good start.
Yet there is so much more to the story than this alludes to. England showed real strength in depth and character by running the world champions so close in this enthralling encounter
With hindsight, Mike Brown’s fumble on the New Zealand five-metre line soon after was a sorely missed opportunity. After sustained pressure, England had a chance to cross the try-line for a second time in ten minutes, only for a long pass by Kyle Eastmond to hit ground after England’s talismanic Brown made a schoolboy error. It was a good pass, straight to hands and no spin; Brown simply made a mistake. Nostalgic readers will recall Ben Kay’s similar drop in the 2003 World Cup Final. Clearly the stakes weren’t as high, but it’s easy to see how another breach of the All Blacks defence so early in the match could have inspired England to greater things. That’s how rugby plays out though, and sometimes the rub of the green is against you.
New Zealand slowly worked themselves back into the game in the second quarter, with Cruden’s boot punishing English mistakes in their own half. However, it was the fly-half’s own try that stole the show and the post-match commentary: it appeared that Cruden had been tackled short of the line, and his legal second-movement looked to be blocked by a timely intervention by Dylan Hartley. Yet referee Nigel Owens was in a perfect position to see and gave the try without hesitation. The crowd erupted in protest; I was in the Upper East stand, and joined the 80,000-strong chorus of voices demanding a TMO-referral. Watching the highlights later, Owens was right in awarding the try as the ball had just nudged the line before Hartley intervened. It is still no consolation.
England led 14-11 at half-time and hopes remained high the stands. Talk among English fans focused on the Owens’ decision, but a strong sense of optimism emanated from Twickenham. Clearly, however, All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen has a heart of sheer coal: whatever despicable black magic was performed in the opposition changing room at half-time was designed with English despair in mind. The All Blacks returned from the interval with renewed vigour, but more pertinent was the lack of direction and clarity surrounding England’s attack. New Zealand dominated both possession and territory, but this is partly due to poor decision-making by Lancaster’s men. Danny Care seemed intent on fuelling the infamous New Zealand counter-attack, sending up poorly aimed box-kicks with no real direction or purpose, other than to relieve pressure. Particularly apt was the change in weather: Hansen conjured a Mordor-esque storm cloud over South-West London, with conditions quickly deteriorating.
The crowd erupted in protest; I was in the Upper East stand, and joined the 80,000-strong chorus of voices demanding a TMO-referral. Watching the highlights later, Owens was right in awarding the try as the ball had just nudged the line before Hartley intervened
In fairness, New Zealand adapted well to the change in conditions, steadily building a healthy lead. For the most part, England’s defence held firm and resisted the wave of attacks, but it was becoming apparent that the mountain the All Blacks had constructed was insurmountable. Even when Dane Coles was sin-binned for lashing out at Hartley, it was to no avail: New Zealand actually won that ten minute period 3-0.
England raised their game somewhat in the final 15 minutes: renewed pressure within the opposition 22-metre resulted in a penalty try with less than a minute to go. The conversion was quickly taken and the restart allowed England one final attack. English hearts were held in mouths for a couple of phases, but the gods were cruel and Chris Robshaw, England’s captain, dropped the ball to end the game.
Despite a defeat that appeared to showcase England’s inability to maintain a lead, there are numerous positives to be gleaned from this weekend. For one, it must be remembered that the opposition are the reigning world champions and, quite possibly, the greatest international team in history. Given that precedent, a close defeat with a team butchered by injury is not so catastrophic. England have possibly the best forward pack in the world, but they are missing six forwards and lost another early-on in the shape of Courtney Lawes. It is a remarkable complement to Kieran Brookes, Rob Webber and Matt Mullan that they are neither England’s first or second-choice front rowers, but they forced a penalty try in the scrum against the All Blacks.
England have possibly the best forward pack in the world, but they are missing six forwards and lost another early-on in the shape of Courtney Lawes
England’s strength in depth shone through yesterday: Dave Attwood, who only started due to a late injury to Joe Launchbury, was an absolute spectacle. His storming charge following a failed Cruden penalty will live long in the memory; it’s not every day a lock beats four or five defenders. His partner George Kruis (replacing Lawes) played well on his debut, as did Anthony Watson and Semesa Rokoduguni. The Fijian-born soldier was centre of attention prior to the match, largely due to the match falling on Remembrance Weekend, and did his job; he countered the threat posed by Julian Savea and kept his cool on the international stage. His side-step and electric turn of pace will likely have to wait until a less intensive defence, but he definitely earned his nod from Lancaster.
In all, you cannot hide the fact that England lost. Less than a year out from the World Cup, with the ambition of turning Twickenham into a fortress, they lost. However, it is impossible to ignore the positives surrounding the defeat; England took the fight to New Zealand and did not shirk in the face of that extraordinary team. For the most part, the All Blacks were contained. That in itself is a victory.
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Agree with the thrust of your piece, Jack, but additionally I think the backs lacked the slickness that should come with work on the basics. Poorly directed passing, even when the ball was held, slowed crucial momentum, and of course poor handling destroyed promising movements. And why did Care kick away so much valuable possession? The All Blacks feed off this sort of thing.