Following a 25-25 draw between England and New Zealand in their Autumn Nations Series fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at Twickenham.
The common wisdom within the sages of Twickenham’s press box before the match was that this game was absolutely too close to call and after 80 gladiatorial if error strewn minutes, the outcome was still at large as the game finished all square. It was a thrilling fightback from England in the last 20 minutes, who were inspired in part by finishers David Ribbans, Mako Vunipola and Will Stuart, and was completed by the running brilliance of Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward.
To call it a game of two halves, four quarters or any other fractional measure is an understatement. At 25-6 down, England seemed dead and buried after a sluggish 60 minutes against a brilliantly opportunistic All Black side who, although not at their best in attack, were huge in defence, lethal in counter attack and far more intelligent with the limited possession they had.
With player of the match Richie Mo’unga providing us with a masterclass of control, feint and kick from outside half, his intellect in exposing England’s aerial game away from the surety of Steward was clearly structured and at times wonderfully executed.
Maybe England will rue not running the ball back in the last minute; would Marcus Smith have done differently in a Quins shirt? Perhaps, but after a frenetic 20 minutes of crawling back from the brink, it was apt that England settled for a wonderful but perhaps fortunate draw.
Aaron Smith and Ardie Savea spent an afternoon in Cardiff earlier this month dismantling Wales and in particular, their connectivity between eight, nine and 10 – the spine of a rugby team. On Saturday, they repeated the feat, giving Leicester Tigers scrum half Jack van Poortvliet a harsh lesson in the realities of elite Test rugby.
Pressure on pass, disruption at base, speed of charge down, they threw the lot at the youngster in an attempt to take any form of continuity and connection between England’s spine. Combine that with the brilliant interception to commence proceedings from the outstanding Dalton Papali’i off a sluggish pass from the England nine and it’s absolutely clear that the All Blacks came to Twickenham with the intention of turning England’s embryonic star into a black hole of chaos.
The plan worked: short exit kicks, slow passes and ponderous possession were a key theme of England’s first half performance and it continued into the second half. The hosts were paralysed in their thinking, spending ages battering against a black brick wall on the New Zealand line with no ability to change cadence, vary threat or challenge with width or guile.
For the rugby purists, in the 49th minute Twickenham saw a piece of engineered finishing that will live long in the memories of those who saw it. Sam Simmonds, one of England’s outstanding players, took the ball hard into the New Zealand 22 only to be tackled and stripped of the ball in contact by Jordie Barrett.
Within the blink of an eye, brother Beauden manufactured a brilliant cross-field kick, Caleb Clarke beat Jonny May in the air to flick pass to a thundering Rieko Ioane, who sprinted clear in a 75-metre dash for the line that had the Twickenham crowd gasping in admiration of the intellect and execution of the All Blacks. The word in the stands was this was rugby the New Zealand way, intuitive and skilful, a different cuisine to the roast beef dishes that England seemed intent on serving up all evening.
But, as England’s finishers strode on, so impact and no less skill arrived. Mako Vunipola looked back to his skipping and offloading best, Stuart added a brace of tries from short range (and hats off to Mathieu Raynal and his team for his considered and unhurried decisioning) but it all seemed too little to late.
Enter Ribbans and, with six minutes to go, Maro Itoje hit the line at speed and offloaded to Henry Slade who found the smallest chink of light to send the thundering Saints lock flying through on a brilliant line. Ribbans offloaded to Farrell, who span out to Steward, with the full-back eventually finishing a try that would have graced any All Black side of any era.
Ribbans has been mentioned in despatches for some years now as England’s answer at lock forward and his 15 minutes on the pitch today turned England’s fortunes and saw him contribute in a manner that can no longer be ignored. Eddie Jones commented post-match that South Africa is a three jumper match and that selection may well be changed for next weekend, with the Northampton man very much with his hat in the starting ring.
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 19, 2022
All Black precision
Ian Foster commented after the game that he wanted to hold two press conferences; one for the first 70 minutes and another for the last 10. New Zealand had taken great time in terms of their preparation for a huge gain line battle and there’s no doubt that at the breakdown, they won handsomely, getting low and over the ball before England could get into a position to steal or slow.
With a clear game plan of scrum-half disruption and a vision to challenge England in the air on the wings, only some errors in execution with a couple of careless offsides from several lethal cross kicks prevented the All Blacks from having a more substantial lead. It was an unusually structured approach from New Zealand, but one that showed the level of detail that this intuitive side are implementing as they build for 2023 Rugby World Cup.
In the final analysis, both Foster and Sam Whitelock expressed frustration at closing off an excellent tour without their clean sweep but, based upon today’s showing, their form and planning looks on target to peak in a year’s time in France.
England had their moments of woe and of joy. The breakdown went against them, with Tom Curry unable to gain any form of foothold in an area he specialises in. The scrum and lineout worked but without dominance and with the Springboks next up, all of those areas need to improve.
But England’s biggest issue is efficiency of finish in the red zone. Time and time again they took to the bully route to crash over without looking to unlock New Zealand in any other way. It was only when Mako Vunipola started to created holes with some great running lines that Smith fully found his attacking mojo and really threatened the line in the manner he does week in week out in the Premiership.
England are possibly one over par for this November campaign and the success or failure of their November series will be defined next week as they take on their avowed enemies, the Springboks. But they’ll take with them the highs of the last 15 minutes that they can split open the best defences and create tries as good as any team in the world and that in itself may just be enough to give them the edge they need next Saturday.