So England eventually fell short. They went down 15-16 to the world champions, undone by the tightest of TMO decisions and some sloppy play in the final minutes.
First of all, let’s address that disallowed try. I know some people will disagree – and disagree strongly – with me, but I don’t feel to aggrieved. I think Lawes was right on the line and can see it being called either way. It certainly wasn’t a howler; if anything it was overly pernickety in a sport that regularly sees minor infractions ignored in order for there to be a game at all.
If I had to come off the fence, I would say it should probably have stood; for a number of reasons, not least the recent World Rugby directive which came in for the most recent round of matches and was designed to give back responsibility to the referee. It states that ‘try scoring should be an on-field decision with the referee being responsible but the team of four can all contribute’. Referee Jérôme Garcès was in an excellent position but consulted Marius Jonker, who said it was ‘offside so you need to change your on-field decision to a penalty,’ something which went against WR’s call for ‘compelling evidence’ in order for the TMO to intervene. Lawes offside was marginal at best and hardly compelling.
However – and it is a big ‘however’ – we were probably pretty lucky with the decision on Owen Farrell’s late ‘tackle’ the previous week. England could just as easily be nil from two as two from two right now. As it stands, one from two against the best of the southern hemisphere is probably a fair position. Arguably the results should probably be the other way around, but that’s just splitting hairs. As Eddie Jones said after the match, ‘sometimes the game loves you, sometimes it doesn’t.’
And it is fair to say that in 2018 the game has not loved Eddie Jones’ squad more than it has. To the point where serious questions were being asked – was this England team really as good as we thought? Was Eddie Jones’ tough-love approach to coaching starting to alienate his players?
The Autumn Internationals have already assuaged some at least some of those fears.
We went into this series panicking about the injury list, missing the likes of Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Nathan Hughes and Sam Simmonds in the backrow. Mark Wilson filled in at the unfamiliar position of eight against South Africa and promptly earned man-of-the-match. Tom Curry was then ruled out and Sam Underhill came in to face New Zealand. And what a game he had. He was exceptional; bruising in defence – he made an impressive 24 tackles, some of them absolutely thumping. Beauden Barrett and Damien McKensie won’t forget his face any time soon.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 11, 2018
Alongside that he was deft in attack, making seven carries for over 60 metres and beating three defenders, even if his ultimate moment of glory, where he turned the world player of the year inside and out, was taken away from him. He was definitely England’s man-of-the-match, even if the official accolades were taken by Brodie Retallick.
When are all fit and firing, it will be a welcome headache to fit them into one backrow.
Equally at loosehead, with Mako Vunipola and Ellis Genge out and Joe Marler retired. Up steps Ben Moon, looking more a 50-cap seasoned international than a rookie.
England’s defence was also good. I had had concerns for a while about the team’s defence – even if we were winning games, we often shipped a surprising number of points. This was in part to the more expansive gameplan and twin receivers of George Ford and Owen Farrell, but so far this Autumn we have taken on two of the best sides and only shipped 28 points in total.
The wisdom goes that New Zealand score on average 30 points a game and around four tries – so to beat them you have to score more. England limited them to just the one try and indeed rattled them to the extent that Barrett kicked his first drop goal in his international career. That’s some respect earned if ever there was.
It wasn’t perfect – there were a few moments when New Zealand went more direct and England slipped off tackles. Overall they ended with only a 76% completion, however this was more due to their fast press and kick chase, which inevitably results in an initial miss, but their main line and scramble defence were excellent.
Speaking of England’s kick chase, that – and their kicking game generally – was excellent. They frequently pressured the Kiwis with perfectly weighted bombs which dropped just outside the 22, so no mark or kick to touch could be made, following it up with a fierce chasing line. Farrell and Slade also used a clever array of kicks to pin them back in their own 22, forcing them to play out – something that in such horrible conditions was no easy feat.
(Oh, and they only conceded seven penalties!)
Indeed, England seemed to have a clear – and working – gameplan, something which maybe hasn’t been so obvious in recent performances.
That said, it wasn’t all perfect (of course it wasn’t we lost). England blew a 15-point lead – not scoring a point after the 25th minute. That needs looking at. England were 24-3 up in the first test against South Africa in June, 12-0 up in the second, and lost both games.
Their decision making also lacked some composure. We can talk about the decision to kick to the corner twice in the second half when kickable points were on offer, but then hindsight is a wonderful thing. And England had of course scored a rolling maul in the first half (albeit their first in as long as I can remember). I am more concerned about Farrell’s restart straight into touch and the decision to fling the ball wide, and ultimately dead, in the dying moments, rather than keeping it tight and positioning for a drop goal. There were a few moments like that, where a little calmness and composure, where a decision to recycle the ball and go again, could have made all the difference.
England’s lineout may be the biggest concern of all, however, as it undid their gameplan entirely in the second half after they lost five throws. The temptation, as always, has been to lay the blame squarely on the hooker, Jamie George, after he replaced Dylan Hartley at half time due to injury. However, I don’t think this is the case here.
The game changed when New Zealand brought Scott Barrett, a lock, into the backrow for Liam Squire. Coupled with Sam Whitelock and Retallick, this formed a formidable trio of lineout technicians – indeed, Barrett’s first action was to steal a ball from under Maro Itoje’s nose. These issues were further compounded when Brad Shields and George Kruis went off for Charlie Ewels and Courtney Lawes. Kruis is England’s lineout maestro and the changes seemed to throw England’s rhythm off; they appeared short of ideas beyond throwing to Itoje, who was just man-marked by the Kiwis.
It is unlikely that will be such an issue against Japan, but it is certainly something which needs work over the next year. Time for Steve Borthwick to earn his keep.
But these are fixable issues, and do not mar the overall excellence by England in a fantastic contest. This was a good performance. The rot has stopped, England have tested themselves against the best and acquitted themselves well. Now they have two games left to make this series a true success.
What do you think – what pleased you about England’s performance and what needs fixing?
By Henry Ker