Beware a team in white on their home ground with plenty to prove! So I suggested last week, and wondered whether the All Blacks may have one eye on the beach as they approached their biggest test of the Autumn Internationals (how could I dare say that?!).
I remember a similar time when an England side with 5 key players banned for foul play, including the Captain, faced a Scotland team at Twickenham bristling with world class players and seeking a 5 Nations Championship. We were given no chance, yet destroyed them with a performance of high intensity and no little skill. Sound familiar?
It was a strange experience watching the first half when England went into the changing room 15-0 up. We had neutered the All Blacks in almost every phase. Even the average kicking of the England half backs mattered little, as the chasing tacklers went about their work, and the counterattacking barely took shape. The stadium was disbelieving that the New Zealanders were being so easily contained and all the while the scoreboard was ticking over. Interestingly, we could all see that Dan Carter was unfit as well as missing his kicks. Strange that he could have passed a fitness test when a pacey Cruden was waiting in the wings.
So what happened – well the All Black storm of two tries hit Twickenham in 5 mins and we sat back awaiting the next move. But it came from England. I had risked a conversation with a very frustrated Manu Tuilagi after the SA game. He agreed with my irritation at him not being allowed to take the clean, early ball but be condemned to sit out wide waiting for the forwards to complete their phases. I suggested he have a word …… Will Carling is my witness! I am sure it was incidental, but suddenly Brad Barritt and Tuilagi were on the front foot challenging All Blacks 1 on 1, mismatches occurred and the unexpectedly porous All Black midfield disintegrated in 10 glorious minutes of English attack. It may be that the English midfield is still unbalanced but let’s leave that for another day. The calmness of Farrell and the prodigious talent of Freddie Burns leave us in a good place at 10 which is a bonus as well. I was also impressed by the aggression of Mike Brown who showed real attitude – he wasn’t going to be faced down by anyone. You know, we all saw and felt that attitude and on the day so did the All Blacks.
The forwards to a man were heroes, and the talent of Launchbury was prodigious – Courtney Lawes is yet to come into contention too. In fact, Foden, Croft, Hartley on a triple comeback leaves England with an embarrassment of riches in many positions.
Lastly, the belief of the coaches needs some applause as they have created this attitude and obviously changed the flawed strategy that blighted the first three matches. However, they will keep their feet on the ground as should we all. Richie McCaw’s grace in defeat was notable, but he and his team won’t take this lying down. All great sides need a wakeup call. It may indeed have been a match too far, food poisoning that week didn’t help, but even so the beach won’t feel quite so comfortable after this. Steve Hansen has said there will be some rocks under his beach towel.
Great sporting moments are dramatic – sometimes unexpected. This was both, and to be at Twickenham last Saturday I can tell everyone was one of the most awesome experiences. I have been through a few of them myself but this was very special. I said I couldn’t wait and I was right – now I dream of a World Cup Final against the same opposition when we can really show them and the world what we can achieve on the grand stage. Yet take a look at the World Cup Pool we are in, hardly straightforward. Also, it’s the Six Nations scrap ahead of us – anything can happen, expectations are high. But the wounded Welsh await in Cardiff, and the Irish youngsters want revenge for Twickenham last year. Not to mention the others!!!! It’s still a long road ahead, its only one match in the bag and the memory will soon fade. But make no mistake, the marker is down – the England Lion has awoken and is on the prowl.