Planet Rugby's James While speaks to former England loose forward Dean Richards to get his views on the recent end-of-year Tests.
In a new series of columns, Planet Rugby's James While catches up with a group of former international stars to get their views on the end-of-year Tests; this week he speaks to the head coach of high-riding RFU Championship leaders Newcastle Falcons and former colossus of England's back-row, Dean Richards.
With only two internationals last weekend, the end-of-year Test series looked ready to fizzle out into obscurity as the last rites were served at Cardiff and Twickenham, when England and Wales hosted New Zealand and Australia.
However, with due respect to Wales – whose fortunes we will discuss later – the damp squib never arrived. In its place, a true firecracker of a game erupted at Twickenham; a match that will live long in the memory of those fortunate enough to have witnessed it first hand, and a performance of skill, brain and bravery from a English side that ranks alongside any achievement from the men in white.
Former British and Irish Lions star Dean Richards, a man known for forthright views, was watching the game unfold at a function in Newcastle:
“With a sweepstake of 500 people in the room, how many do you think had backed England?' asked Richards. “Two. TWO!'
“If you're honest, and after watching a season of excellence from New Zealand, who truly thought England had a chance? Not many, that's for sure, especially after some of the headlines in the week surrounding Chris Robshaw's captaincy – was one of the headlines 'Captain Calamity?”
“I think questioning Robshaw like that was a gross injustice, and I'm delighted he's come back to show the strength of character I know he has.
“In point of fact, I believe the press got England's back up midweek; some of the criticism was stinging to a young side. Everyone wrote them off, and I am also guilty of that, but the remarks made were not becoming.”
As history will reveal, Robshaw's England bounced back higher than they fell. Rugby folk will tell you that you never beat the All Blacks, you just score more points than them. But this was a game where even the most battle hardened New Zealanders commended not only England's win, but the manner in which they achieved it. That in itself is unheard of praise.
“Richard Hill wrote in last week's Expert Witness about countering the NZ ruck tactics, and he was absolutely right”, commented Richards.
“Efficiency at the breakdown is everything to New Zealand. It is their lifeblood, and if you can slow it down or dry it up, even they will start to struggle.
“England created havoc. Their forwards and some of the backs at times were hitting rucks as if their careers depended on it. England competed in the tight/loose better than any side against the All Blacks in at least a year”, he explained.
“New Zealand were rocked; they started to commit more numbers into the areas, which opened holes for England to create pressure and score points.
“Where I would question the All Blacks, is, after a rousing start to the second half and they'd recovered to 15-14, they still tried to play an expansive game. England were in unfamiliar territory at that time, and perhaps NZ should have reined it in, played for field position and slowly righted the ship.
“Instead, which is uncharacteristic of them, they got it wrong. They made some poor decisions, and continued to throw it around. Look at Kieran Read's speculative offload as an example, and he's an outstanding leader in that side. That approach cost them dearly. They played catch-up rugby and when they'd caught up, they continued to play it.”
A lot of people had feared this was England's boys against New Zealand's men.
“The youngsters stepped up', observed Richards.
“Joe Launchberry really excited me. A young man of 21 prepared to back his aerial skills, his hands, to add grunt, and to put his body on the line. Tom Wood too, who played the most disruptive of games on the tackle line, and Ben Morgan, a guy who maybe isn't topping the fitness stats, but displays a real understanding of the game every time he plays.
“They made New Zealand fight for every scrap, and I think Dan Cole is fast becoming the best 7 in the home nations, let alone the best 3!
“This side will take a lot of learning from the series, and on other occasions, could have gotten better results against both South Africa and Australia. But they've also played three different styles: the Bok power, the Wallaby intelligence and cheek, and the total rugby of the All Blacks. They'll have learned a lot.
A wry Richie McCaw, full of praise and respect for England, commented on Saturday that whilst his team-mates will have time to recover and focus on other rugby, the loss had to stick in his own throat for the whole of his forthcoming sabbatical from rugby.
Richards is quick to acknowledge McCaw's contribution to the game.
“He is without doubt the best of the modern era,” agreed Richards.
“There has never been an openside like him. His decision making is utterly incredible. He never gets things wrong.
“Many talk about his skills and his nuisance value at the breakdown, but for me what stands out about his play is this absolute intuition and anticipation he possesses. He knows what's going to happen without having to even think. It's second nature to him and this is a quality only the true greats have. Absolutely uncanny.”
Over in Cardiff, the Wallabies roadshow became the Kurtley Beale show as the Australian outside back broke Welsh hearts, as the Principality, with Leigh Halfpenny nailing his colours well and truly to the Lions' mast, slumped to a seventh successive defeat.
With Wales at 12-9 in the final minute, replacement Wallaby flanker Dave Dennis squeezed through the Welsh wide defence and fed Beale, who touched down in the corner.
What on earth has happened to a side that were playing so well 12 months ago?
“I have to say they're missing Warren Gatland's strong hand on the tiller more than they admit” observed Dean.
“Rob Howley, whilst an exceptional player and an exciting and emerging coach, doesn't have the experience of dealing with the players in that situation. It takes strong personalities with the reference points that only coaching at the highest level brings. Warren has that, Rob, as of yet does not.
“Everyone is learning as they play, and whilst Wales have had a particularly tough experience this winter, they must work their own way out of it.
“On the plus side for Wales, Leigh Halfpenny showed what an emerging talent he is. He's another intuitive type of player; high quality goal-kicker with a long range, quick and very powerful in both tackle and ruck.
“Gatland's return is the thing that's sorely needed though, and it will bring the experience to analyze both the play and the players themselves. They have proven they have the personnel, it's a case of belief, decisioning, selection and tactics now.”
So that's it for this