As New Zealand’s Conrad Smith dived over in the corner with less than two minutes on the clock to propel a misfiring New Zealand to what would be a narrow 20-15 victory over a gutsy and odds-defying England, the TV cameras cut to the All Blacks’ coaching box up in the Eden Park stands. Sitting back in his chair was head coach Steve Hansen who could be seen simply tapping the desk in front of him in an understated celebration and acknowledgement of just the latest example of his side’s mental strength and ability to deliver when it matters most.
The failure of the last-gasp drama to lift him out of his chair and the absence of a fist pump or high five with those around him suggested the result was never in doubt. There was no unbridled joy despite the fact that an England side, that was under-strength and largely anonymous according to All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick, had come so close to a rare victory on New Zealand soil. There was no clear sense of relief despite having seen his faltering side flirt with the end of a 14-Test winning run and a 20-year unbeaten record at their traditional Auckland home.
In fact there was no emotion at all to speak of even after seeing fly-half Aaron Cruden opt against a relatively simple kick at the posts, with the clock running down and the scores tied, in favour of a tap-and-go penalty – a gamble that initially failed before Smith pounced a few moments later.
You just cannot fault the All Blacks’ confidence at such an important part of the game having stuttered through their season-opener to that point with ring rust having blighted much of their endeavour.
Cruden’s call triggered memories of the never-say-die finale to the thrilling clash with Ireland back in November that ended in a sensational victory and also Richie McCaw’s refusal to kick the ball out and settle for a draw against Australia in 2012 in the hope of snatching victory – which they very nearly did.
Those examples along with Hansen’s unflappable demeanour illustrate the players’ complete ownership of the team when they take to the field. Hansen has complete trust in his troops to make the right call at the right time, although his comfort is probably aided by the fact that he has players of the calibre of McCaw, Cruden and Smith at his disposal.
That confidence, that is a key part of the All Blacks’ armoury, and needs to be negated just as much as their all-action game plan if they are to be dethroned at the World Cup. It took a battering at Eden Park but they rolled with the punches and it will clearly take more – perhaps a concerted effort by the world’s best over the coming months – to blow what few cracks there are wide open.
England may view the mere bruising of the All Blacks’ ego as an unfit reward and with some justification. They dominated many of the key statistics – possession, territory, metres made, line breaks, tackle busts, offloads, rucks/mauls won and turnovers won but crucially not the scoreboard. For all their industry and the excitement generated by the pace of winger Jonny May and dancing feet of centres Manu Tuilagi and Kyle Eastmond, it was all too brief and tries proved elusive even when the All Blacks were being uncharacteristically generous to the tune of 21 missed tackles. Do England boast a player brave and confident enough to take charge as Cruden did?
Put simply, they must master a clinical cutting edge and score tries if they are to claim an unlikely series win and conquer the world in 2015. The All Blacks had maybe one or two clear chances – and made sure they took. England didn’t.
Success may have alluded them but the performance of an untried side and host of fringe players will have not only have handed England coach Stuart Lancaster a selection headache ahead of the second Test but will have also served as the latest reminder that England are on the right track.But as impressive England’s performance it will mean little unless they back it up in Dunedin and Hamilton in the next couple of weeks. One notable performance in New Zealand does not a successful summer tour make – just ask Ireland.
They came agonisingly close to a first-ever win over New Zealand in Christchurch back in 2012 where they eventually went down 22-19. They then failed spectacularly to reproduce that kind of form the following weekend in Hamilton where they shipped 60 points and offered no reply. No one in their right mind is going to tip England for a similar capitulation next weekend especially when they are set to be bolstered by those front line players who sat out this encounter having gone toe-to-toe in the Aviva Premiership finale last weekend.
But beware that the All Blacks are highly unlikely to be this poor again for a very long time. England do not have that many more gears to go through while we can expect a much smoother-running New Zealand next Saturday. England may have been the last side to have toppled the All Blacks way back in 2012 in a game that served as a springboard to much of the good we have seen from them in the months since, but you sense they need to conjure a repeat and inflict a fresh psychological blow between now and the World Cup.
The trouble is their best chance of victory over the All Blacks has now come and gone with their rivals set to be battle-hardened come the fourth clash of this extended series at Twickenham in November. But imagine the reaction if England did step it up again? Now, that surely would have Hansen out of his seat?
How do you think England and New Zealand will perform in the second test this weekend? Will we see the All Blacks step up their game?