Any good dictionary will tell you that an ‘experiment’ is a test or investigation that is devised to provide evidence for or against a hypothesis. It will also tell you that to ‘fail’ is to try and do something but be unable to do it. England coach Stuart Lancaster’s decision to select Manu Tuilagi on the wing for the their 28-27 second Test defeat to New Zealand in Dunedin ticks both of these boxes.
It is some way from Italy coach Nick Mallett’s eyebrow-raising call to select flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half for their Six Nations clash with England at Twickenham in 2009, but Lancaster must accept that Tuilagi was frustratingly ineffective.
It was a bold call from Lancaster as he juggled a wealth of midfield options and a desire to maintain the momentum from a strong showing in Auckland in their first encounter that also ended in a narrow defeat. Why shift your most destructive weapon, and arguably your freshest player, to a position where his contribution would be limited and demand of him a role he is not familiar with? Lancaster insisted he wanted to have a look at Tuilagi in that position, sensing he had the attributes to excel but we are unlikely to see a repeat.
Tuilagi saw precious little ball and as a result was denied the opportunity to wreak as much havoc in the New Zealand’s defence as he has done on more than one occasion previously. This may have been largely due to the All Blacks’ second half dominance but even when England were controlling the contest in the first half they were unable to utilise Tuilagi’s enviable skill set or maybe the player was just not accustomed to running the lines that would have allowed him to have had more of a say in the contest.
A superb offload, having drawn two All Blacks, in the closing stages of the game in the lead up to Chris Ashton’s try emphasised what could have been had Tuilagi been able to play a more central role and a return to the No.13 shirt surely awaits for the third Test in Hamilton. Tuilagi is a headline act and deserve such billing. He is not a bit-part player by any means. The identity of his midfield partner remains up for debate with the favoured ball-playing Billy Twelvetrees and Kyle Eastmond set to be lead the chase.
After drawing a blank last weekend, the gauntlet was thrown down to England with many insisting that they could not expect to beat the All Blacks or conquer the world without scoring tries against the best sides. They responded with a three-try haul that is certainly worthy of praise but that will only get you so far if you fail to shackle the All Blacks and perhaps more importantly let other golden opportunities pass you by.
England’s blistering start had New Zealand reeling with penalties outpacing the clock at one stage but the lack of a clinical edge once again let them down. The usually reliable England lineout faltered at one point but lock Joe Launchbury pounced with a charge down that had New Zealand scrambling inside their own 22. But some ferocious counter-rucking from the All Blacks rescued the situation and the chance was gone.
Another scoring opportunity came and went late in the first half after an interception from winger Manu Tuilagi led to a surge downfield only for some Ben Smith heroics to snuff out any hope of a score. The All Blacks rarely spurn such opportunities and their ability to turn up the heat and strike when their opponents are stretched remains the benchmark.
Much was made of England’s bench and the decisive contribution the likes of Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola and Chris Ashton could make but it simply did not materialise. Vunipola may have made a significant impression on the All Blacks’ defence and Ashton may have crossed for a late try but in truth it was too little, too late.
They struggled to adjust to the pace of what was a largely thrilling game and were unable to have the desired impact. Lancaster may well be blessed with a fair amount of depth but, as with Tuilagi’s deployment in this game, can he afford to waste the world-class talent at his disposal?
Sadly, the game hinged on a debatable call from referee Jaco Peyper in the early stages of the second half. England fly-half Owen Farrell was sin-binned for killing the ball in the shadow of his own posts but replays suggested the ball never went to ground and so the No.10 was under no obligation to release it. In Farrell’s absence, Beauden Barrett slotted the resulting penalty and he would also convert a try from Ma’a Nonu that all-but took the game away from the tourists.
But to be fair, the try was due reward for an All Blacks side that, like so many times before, had already found a couple of extra gears just when they needed them most. England had once again rattled the hosts in the first half and had taken a deserved lead into the break following a pulsating and lung-busting opening 40 minutes.
But New Zealand are the world’s best side for a reason and simply took their game to another level at which England could not live with fullback and Man of the Match Ben Smith delivering a superb display incorporating both outstanding defence and attacking flair.
The stats made for uncomfortable reading for the All Blacks last time out but this week was a different story altogether with 61% of possession and 60% of territory telling much of the story. Continuity was also there with 95 rucks/mauls won to England’s 54 while 32 tackle busts to their rival’s hammer home their dominance.
Another great chance to bloody the nose of the All Blacks has gone and instead England are left with more questions than answers.