Expert Witness: November Tests

Date published: November 13 2014

Expert Witness welcomes Harlequins and All Black fly-half Nick Evans to the chair to cast his views over the past weekend’s events.

Expert Witness returns, welcoming Harlequins and New Zealand fly-half Nick Evans to the chair to cast his views over the events of the weekend.

In the wake of a formidable All Blacks performance at Twickenham and an exhilarating Irish display in Dublin, Expert Witness returns, welcoming Harlequins and New Zealand fly-half Nick Evans to the chair to cast his views over the events of the weekend.

Evans believes that whilst England could rightfully be proud of their first half showing, All Black control meant there was only going to be one winner.

“The ability of New Zealand to react to the game situation and changing weather conditions on Saturday was quite remarkable,” observed the former All Black pivot.

“During England’s tour to New Zealand, we saw a side that tried to beat the AB’s with handling and pace. I’m not sure what happened but England reverted to type on Saturday and went back to their physical tight game of a couple of years back. You’re not going to upset the Kiwi’s using the battering ram approach and especially when parts of those tactics weren’t executed particularly well.

“When you have a side that’s played together as much as the All Blacks, all 15 players seeing the same picture on the field is key and that’s exactly what happened. The level of rugby IQ was exceptional, and not only did they identify the situation, but they acted, as a team, in a highly effective manner. New Zealand decided to tire the physical defence with a relentless wave of short runners.

“The shapes and options they achieved off very deep phases of close-quarter play were energy sapping, and wave after wave of NZ runners dented the energy and spirits of England. Key to this was the pace and angles of the carriers and the way Aaron Smith orchestrated the pace of those incursions. I was also particularly pleased when TJ Perenawa, a man under pressure for his place, came on and even raised the tempo of his half-back colleague, a little cameo by the youngster.

“Looking at England, they did so many things so well but at times let themselves down with poor optioning. Their set piece was huge, something that’s almost a given for English sides. If you look at their line-out, you’ll notice that they were closing the gaps to compete on New Zealand’s ball, illegal but street wise and hugely effective and stole 30 percent of Kiwi ball and completed all of their own throws. However, with that level of dominance, you’d question why they never tried to throw long extended ball to the back and unleash Care and the midfield power houses with fast ‘off the top’ ball, one of the hardest plays to defend? It was a waste of quality work by the forwards,” noted Evans.

“Equally, England pick Danny Care, a guy I’ve partnered over 130 times and a player who relies upon pace and playing off the cuff, yet they then ask him to play a very confined structured game? I simply don’t get that. Pick players to perform as they do for their clubs is always the right mantra and DC needs to be allowed to express himself. Equally, when Farrell was moved to 12 to allow George Ford on, I expected deep kicking to both touchlines from the 10/12 axis. It didn’t happen and you have to question the thought process.

“You also have to examine England’s situational awareness. Time and time again they box kicked when three All Black defenders were fielding that play. In each instance Kieran Read would also drop back to make himself available to support totally negating the tactic. Net result? England gain probably ten metres, turnover possession and then are pinned back precisely where they started, this time without the ball. In that second half, it cried out to play rugby out of the red and amber zones, but no-one in white saw that picture in the way the All Blacks did. Smart rugby was playing over the half way line and England, through their own naivety and the pressure of New Zealand and particularly Richie McCaw, were unable to do that.”

“In summary, you could argue that England, in their last four Tests against New Zealand, had taken a step or two forward. In that second half, they took a big step back and they need to blend their attacking strategies but crucially react to the unfolding situation in front of them. Both of these qualities were lacking on Saturday, and the All Blacks, as befits the number one side in the world, exploited that to the maximum.”

Over in Dublin, Ireland put South Africa to the sword, out-tackling, out-rucking and out-mauling the Springboks in a memorable day in the Aviva Stadium.

With Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray producing performances of control and physicality, Evans believes that the Springboks simply failed to turn up:

“Listening to Heyneke Meyer and Jean de Villiers after the game suggested that the Boks just didn’t have their game hat on. It’s an old truism in rugby that identifying South Africa’s tactics is pretty easy; negating them is another thing all together, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahoney and Jamie Heaslip met power with power and absolutely beasted them on the gain line,” explained Evans.

“A lot of South Africa’s attacks start with the power of Willem Alberts and his ability to take the ball into contact and tie up 2 and 3 defenders. He’s a huge unit and the Boks really missed his power in that first contact and around the loose phases, especially since the Irish employed their famous Munster choke tackle to good effect.

“Combine his absence with a strange performance from the rather anonymous Francois Hougaard, Duane Vermuelen simply not stepping up to fill the gap left by Alberts and the Boks lacked their customary control, despite the brilliance of Marcel Coetzee and Willie le Roux throughout the game,” said Evans.

“Ireland, for their part, showed huge tactical awareness. The variety shown by their half backs was exemplary; Murray sniping and a huge pain around the fringes, and Johnny Sexton, whose options were pinpoint perfect all night.

“Ireland are really benefiting from two things; one, is the ability to pick units from their limited number of provinces. By that I mean players who know each others’ games inside out and back to front. It’s a quality that Australia also enjoy and both nations seem to turn a perceived weakness into a positive strength. Secondly, Joe Schmidt; he’s worked with a lot of these players at domestic level and has a very pragmatic way of using the resources he has to maximum effect,” noted Evans.

“Looking at 2015, and Ireland are a dark horse that can’t be underestimated. Life after O’Driscoll seems to be thriving,” quipped Evans.

In Cardiff, Wales contrived to lose again to Rugby Championship opposition, making their tally 24 losses from 26 games under Gatland. What on earth appears to be the issue for a side that supplied a large proportion of the successful Lions side last year?

“You have to take responsibility in rugby,” said Evans.

“Gifting missing three one on one tackles and