All Blacks v England: Five takeaways from New Zealand’s ‘unusual display’ as ‘three areas’ prove the difference

James While
Ben Earl on the charge for England against New Zealand.

Ben Earl on the charge for England against New Zealand.

Following New Zealand’s narrow 16-15 win over England in Dunedin, here are James While’s five takeaways from the brilliant Test.

The top line

A titanic breakdown and set-piece clash saw New Zealand sneak over the line in Dunedin as they overcame a spirited and powerful England side to win by a single point in a game that went right down to the wire.

With tries at a premium with two for each team, it was an unusual display from New Zealand, relying upon pinpoint kicking from their half-backs and superiority at scrum time to see them home.

England will rue throwing away a match that they led coming into the last quarter but the ferocity of New Zealand’s contest around the breakdown simply pinned the visitors back and when Steve Borthwick unloaded his bench, he took away some of the exit variety that had kept England going forward and over the halfway line.

It cannot be overlooked that England left eight simple and easy points out there due to some poor place kicking; it seemed strange that given Henry Slade’s kicking form that he wasn’t called into action as Marcus Smith had a dismal day off the tee, despite an impressive showing in open play.

There will be both recriminations and platitudes from the England team and frustration but pride from the All Blacks management – a fair reflection as there were so many good things to like about the way both teams went about their business. But the bottom line is that New Zealand, champion side that they are, found a way to win whereas England struggled to deliver the killer blow.

New Zealand front up

Basics of breakdown, set-piece and aerial battle win Tests, and in all three areas New Zealand shaded England as Scott Barrett and Dalton Papali’i caused England’s ruck and contact work all sorts of problems. Sam Underhill smashed some incredible tackles around the park, but he, alongside Ben Earl and Chandler Cunningham-South, simply struggled with the speed and lowness of the All Blacks recycle work.

New Zealand played a cute game with some lightning pick-and-go’s from the base, momentum that prevented England any chance of stealing and kept the Red Rose’s breakdown players retreating in a scramble. On the other side of the ball, Barrett’s immense shift put huge pressure on the England ruck stability and in terms of recycling the teams were poles apart.

The scrummage will be an area of concern for England but the simple truth is they’re playing the best props they have. None of the combinations gelled and Theo Dan’s inexperience saw him placed under huge pressure from both Codie Taylor and Ofa Tu’ungafasi. England need to adjust their height, their aggression on hit and to paint a much better picture of stability if they’re going to seek the approval of the officials.

However, if there’s a crumb of comfort, England caused all sorts of issues for the Kiwi line-out with two steals and a number of disruptions, with Maro Itoje putting in a huge performance of intellect and skills. He, together with Cunningham-South, stood out, taking any sort of platform away from New Zealand and it’s great to see the Lions lock back to his stellar best.

The kick duel

The All Blacks play an all-court game and with England’s rush defence suffocating in its speed and accuracy, they produced a wonderful display of exit kicking that pinned England back, especially in that arm wrestle of the last 30 minutes.

Damian McKenzie demonstrated huge poise and the range of his skill set as his tactical kicking, much of it to the tramlines of the 22, simply pinned England back after the Immanuel Feyi-Waboso try. With dominance at the breakdown, McKenzie’s control was the key to getting the All Blacks back into the match with turnovers, contest-winning and then the inevitable penalties.

For England, their kicking strategy in exit fell apart when Ben Spencer and Fin Smith replaced Alex Mitchell and Marcus Smith. Mitchell holds defenders as he has the ability to change his options and break around the side – that keeps defences up – but Spencer never showed any intention of doing anything but kicking, giving the All Black defence the chance to hold back and to win any contestable Spencer launched.

To compound England’s issues, they abdicated their first half challenge in the air on their own kicks, and much of Spencer’s bombs were fielded unchallenged, under zero pressure, allowing New Zealand to get back over the halfway line and out of danger.

It was almost as if once the multi-faceted threat of Smith and Mitchell departed, New Zealand thrived due to the predictability of the new England half-backs and Borthwick will be disappointed in how his second-string pairing performed.

Old faces, new stars

However, for all the issues England faced, they still can take a lot of positives out of this match. For 50 minutes Cunningham-South, brutal in his hits, put in an enormously impressive display on both sides of the ball, but once he ran out of steam England lacked that heavy carrier into midfield that commits numbers.

George Furbank looked as dangerous as any outside back on the pitch and once again vindicated his selection alongside another sumptuous showing from his Saints half-back Mitchell, who really shouldn’t have been taken off.

With Fin Baxter conspicuous in the loose, and Feyi-Waboso superb all evening, with his post-contact metres and defence a real feature of his game, the newbies showed promise as they faced up to one of the best sides in the world.

Old face Itoje is sometimes unfairly criticised for falling in and out of games but in Dunedin, he was absolutely massive, scoring tries, stealing lineouts and grabbing turnovers on the floor, gelling well with the master of the melt, George Martin, in the engine room.

New Zealand will be impressed by the performances of a couple of their newer faces; Samipeni Finau never stopped challenging and competing, whilst Finlay Christie also continued the good work of TJ Perenara, without ever challenging the sides of the ruck, as he played a tactical kicking game towards the end of the second half to pin England back in their own half.

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The week ahead

Looking forward, New Zealand will be delighted with their resilience but very disappointed in their failure to really break down the brilliant English rush defence. Their centres and back-row really needed to straighten and commit numbers, but the speed of England’s self-recycle back into the line was breathtaking and stopped the All Blacks getting anywhere near the number of line-breaks that usually characterise their play.

The message will be about attack and creating opportunities, whilst building upon the immense durability that took them home in Dunedin.

England’s issues are around the set-piece and making sure their bench makes an impact, something it really failed to do in this Test. The scrum is what it is, and Joe Marler’s absence next weekend will be a blow. They need to work hard to paint a better and lower picture to the referee and work out a way of combating the immense power of both sets of New Zealand front-row forwards.

Borthwick will also want to look at the connection between the centres and outside defence. Tommy Freeman made an unforgivable blunder to get the wrong side of the ball, leaving Earl to cover two players, and once again, Henry Slade fused some handing and defensive howlers with some nice moments in rush and with the boot.

Above all, England needs to up their intensity at breakdown time and that might see Tom Curry and Underhill swap roles in an attempt to get Curry’s superpowers of ruck rampage onto the pitch earlier in the match.

Dunedin might just have been England’s best chance to win against New Zealand, but the opportunity to take the good parts of this performance and to deliver something even better at Eden Park next week awaits them and they need to grab that opportunity with both hands.

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