Spin it any which way you please, England’s latest loss to the All Blacks was flattering.
Yes, England enjoyed long periods of dominance, were weakened by injury, scored the best try of the match through Johnny May’s deceptive pace and had the upper hand in the set piece exchanges. Ultimately, though, their fifth successive loss to the All Blacks told us they can’t yet stick with the world’s best for 80 minutes. Forty minutes yes. Eighty, no.
For all their competitiveness, that much was clearly evident in June, too.
With over 82,000 one-eyed fans desperate to influence any way they could England were also given a more-than-generous helping hand from referee Nigel Owens.
Anyone, including the IRB, who thinks the Welsh whistler produced anything close to a competent performance consumed some bad, hallucinogenic pie before kickoff. More on Owens’ calamitous night later.
The All Blacks are making a concerning habit of starting slowly. England enjoyed 73 per cent possession in the opening 12 minutes – and should have scored three tries. Through physical aggression at the breakdown, which thwarted Aaron Smith’s lethal distribution, fast line speed and staunch defence, they controlled the tempo. For 40 minutes that is.
England’s lineout, where they frequently contested and regularly caused disruption, and scrum were superior throughout. They more than deserved their 14-11 half time lead. That’s about where the positives end for Stuart Lancaster, though.
New Zealand were always going to regroup and come again. It shouldn’t have surprised. They’ve trailed at the break five times this year – and only lost once. Even then South Africa needed a heroic 55 metre Pat Lambie penalty to steal victory on full time at Ellis Park, their spiritual home of rugby.
Lancaster spoke of the need to take the All Blacks on at their own game. Why then, did his men suddenly become conservative? A lack of on field leadership perhaps?
With a one man advantage, after Dane Coles’ controversial yellow card – the All Blacks’ 13th in their past 20 tests – England persisted to kick instead of attacking and probing for obvious space. Their second half tactics were questionable at best. Reverting back to a traditional – and predictable – power-based game never posed enough questions. May’s try should have offered the confidence to have a crack.
Where was their endeavour? Where was their patience? If the All Blacks, marshalled at this point by replacement halfback TJ Perenara, can amass 26-odd phases in torrential rain in the lead up to Charlie Faumuina’s composure-laden try, why can’t England?
Danny Care, in a similar mould to South Africa’s Fourie du Preez, boasts a superb kicking game. His ability to exploit space in the All Blacks’ back field was brilliant early. In the second half, though, he and Owen Farrell needed to realise this option was now easily defused. Turning the ball over with such ease is coach killer material.
The All Blacks appeared in near cruise control in the second half. Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett left 12 points on the field through poor goal kicking alone – and Owens’ decision to award a penalty try, without warning, from a scrum that was moving sideways at the death was absurd. Surely even the most patriotic England supporters would concede doubt in which way the penalty should have been awarded, let alone a definitive try being scored from that movement.
For those reasons, the final three-point margin completely flattered the English.
Ten months out from the World Cup the implications of such a result are debatable.
England did enough to suggest they are, indeed, a threat, though not one with a fearsome element attached. A two-from-12 record against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa over the past two years will soon see pressure build on Lancaster. A wounded Springboks team won’t be any easier this week, either.
We can also safely dismiss the notion of Twickenham being any form of “fortress”.
The All Blacks’ mantra won’t allow them to look past this week’s test against Scotland.
Internally, they will be satisfied to further quell English confidence but also aware they, too, have plenty to improve.
Two quick points to finish.
Don’t count on Owens, or the IRB, assuming any accountability for the poor officiating.
Owens clearly overruled the TMO’s recommendation for a penalty alone on Coles and should have gone upstairs to check Aaron Cruden’s try.
Worst of all, he resembled a quivering child being bullied in the school playground after bowing to boos and stopping Barrett’s conversion to request confirmation of Faumuina’s try.
Owens was in perfect position. On the spot he made the correct call by awarding the try. There was no need for any further action. He simply caved under pressure – not an endorsement for much bigger tests to come.
“Sorry about that” Owens said to Barrett once replays showed Faumuina clearly grounded the ball over the line.
Sorry isn’t good enough. Owens has previously presided over memorable tests – notably the epic in Johannesburg last year – but he, like players, must be held responsible for mistakes.
On this occasion there were too many blunders. He should be benched for one test.
Silence while a goal kicker goes through their respective routines is a commendable, unique approach.
The Irish are famous for their respect in this regard – now England want to follow suit. Flashing messages which state: “Please be quiet. Respect the kicker” seems contrived though.
Let the paying punters do as they please. And if you really want to show respect, start by not booing the opposition captain during his post match speech and attempting to drown out the haka.
Can any of the Northern hemisphere teams match the All Blacks for 80 minutes? Did Nigel Owens decisions affect the outcome of the game?
What are your score predictions for this weekends matches?