England boss Stuart Lancaster doesn’t strike you as the kind of coach that lets his rage get the better of him, a character trait perhaps honed during his days as a teacher, but Saturday’s 36-13 defeat to New Zealand revealed that he is not averse to delivering a verbal barrage.
At half-time in Hamilton, with his players standing on the precipice of a potential hammering that would have undone much of the good work they had produced on tour, served as a body blow to their World Cup aspirations and seen the respect they had earned from the host nation evaporate, Lancaster opted for a few ‘home truths’.
Lancaster’s frustration with his team’s first half implosion was probably matched by his irritation at the fact that such ‘sharp’ words, as he also called them, were required at all. His side’s failure to acknowledge and rectify the shortcomings in their own performance in the midst of a battering from the All Blacks will have been alarming.
A team boasting such leaders as skipper Chris Robshaw and flanker Tom Wood up front, looked desperately short of a steadying hand within the backs and specifically at the heart of the their defence. The injury-enforced absence of fly-half Owen Farrell may well have had some impact on organisational and marshalling duties and what England would do for a player of the experience and intelligence of New Zealand’s Conrad Smith in that part of their game.
Admittedly England were under intense pressure from an All Blacks side in full flow for the first time this year with little time to breathe let alone think at a premium, but it should not need Lancaster and co to reinforce the message and stop the rot.
As in many aspects of the game, the All Blacks are the perfect example of a side able to think on their feet, slow and disrupt the game and adjust their approach to nullify their opponents. It is an ability that appears to come so easy to them, almost naturally, and requires no input from a coach or even a messenger masquerading as a waterboy.
This was the last game of a long season for England’s leading players and at time it was painfully obvious. Gone was the intensity that they had summoned in Auckland and Dunedin and their focus faded with their failure to convert territory and possession into points.
Switching off for a few seconds against the All Black can be dangerous, for forty minutes it can be disastrous as England found out to their cost. A game that promised so much was effectively over before half-time.
The biggest concern for England and Lancaster was the All Blacks’ ability to blow what has been a solid England defence apart. The game stats underlined their proficiency with ball in hand with a total of 10 linebreaks and 28 defenders beaten set to ensure a painful review for the likes of England midfield duo of Manu Tuilagi and Kyle Eastmond. In the words of defence coach Andy Farrell, a side that has been all about being ‘proactive’ suddenly slipped into being ‘reactive’.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was quick to praise assistant Ian Foster’s input and specifically the plays he devised to exploit areas of England’s game they perceived as possible weaknesses and together they can revel in having ‘out-coached’ their rivals.
Creating the opportunities is one thing, executing the move is another, but it makes things a lot easier when you have players such as winger Julian Savea in your ranks. The winger’s first half brace showcased his fine finishing skills and took the wind out of England’s sails.
His hat-trick try in the dying moments of the game not only took his Test tally to 23 tries in 22 games but also means he has eight against England – a return that draws him level with their Kiwi tormentor-in-chief Jonah Lomu.
“If we want to be the best in the world we need to be there for 80 minutes,” insisted Lancaster after the game having seen his side steady the ship in the second half, but it clearly requires more than that.
And when it comes to consistency they need look no further than the All Blacks for a blueprint. Their victory at Waikato Stadium extended their current winning run to 17 games to equal the mark of their predecessors between 1965 and 1969 and South Africa between 1997 and 1998. Cyprus may well insist they hold the world record having won their last 23 games but with all due respect to the Moufflons, they cannot really claim to have played sides of a similar calibre as New Zealand who have lost just one of their last 38 Test outings.
They remain the team to beat and that ‘home truth’ will echo throughout the summer until England’s next meeting with the All Blacks at Twickenham in November.
Should Lancaster have expected more from his players? Did the All Black’s game plan exploit England’s defence weaknesses?