Expert Witness: Nick Evans on England v New Zealand

Date published: November 7 2018

As Round Two of the November Tests approaches, Expert Witness welcomes back former All Black and Harlequins playmaker Nick Evans to preview one of the longest awaited match-ups in rugby; England versus New Zealand.

Clash of the Titans

It seems incomprehensible the congested fixture list has prevented England playing New Zealand for such an extended period, but it is four long years since the countries last met.

Whilst sides may play for bragging rights and rankings, nothing in the sport comes close to taking the scalp of the world’s finest side and Evans understands, more than most, precisely what makes the All Blacks so great:

“The famed All Black culture is a pretty special thing,” he noted.

“It’s about succession planning, continuity and evolution, and those qualities are at the core of the team’s DNA.

“Taking this tour as an example, New Zealand go into it with a much more settled view on their selection and tactics than any other side, with the possible exception of Ireland who are in a pretty similar place.

“There will be a clear view on what success looks like from the trip; the first will be player welfare and management, and in that respect, I have to say we are way ahead of the rest, with the structure allowing us to develop players and retain our talent.

“The second point is about changing up our ball retention aspirations. There’s often talk in the press of how deadly the team is when they’ve not got the ball; by that we mean that from turnover, the All Blacks are absolutely lethal in their broken field running and turnover attack.

“As we approach the World Cup, we will see our opponents looking to play lower risk rugby and the Tests versus the top Northern Hemisphere sides will be very much in that vein. Indeed, in the Cup itself, teams are not worried about how many, rather just how. A single point win is enough and very few World Cup knockout stage matches have anything other than a few points separating the sides.

“This means people will play streetwise rugby and retention of the ball in those situations is vital. Teams won’t kick to our back three for fear of counter; it becomes a territorial battle where three points is as welcome as seven and attrition usurps attacking intent to get you on the right side of the scoreboard.

“The All Blacks game is based upon familiarity, with succession for our rookies and rest and player management for the established stars.

“We will want to explore different styles and using retention at the core of a multi-phase game to dominate possession is our biggest aim. If we can bolt this on to our natural attacking threat, we will take the All Black game to a new level. The tour will see that succession planning I mentioned, as young players like outstanding loose forward Dalton Papali’i are blooded, ready for Test action, whilst other proven players, such as Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick, are eased back into full fitness.

“All in all, we come into this tour in a fantastic place and I’m genuinely excited to see how the All Blacks develop their aspirations against the best the Northern Hemisphere has to offer,” Evans concluded.

England’s grit

England’s encounter versus South Africa defined the word ‘physicality’. Rarely has such an irresistible object met such an unstoppable force, and had the Boks executed their line-out, offloading and strategic thinking as well as their natural power game, the match would have been over by half-time.

But with zero South African offloads in the match (yes, zero!), and England’s defence stretching the Boks, the home side recorded a satisfying and fortuitous win. Evans was impressed with England’s durability:

“England and the outstanding Owen Farrell epitomised character during that match. It’s a hackneyed phrase but good sides win ugly and England did precisely that.

“Some of the Springbok decision making was woeful. How can you go through a match hitting power runner after power runner into the midfield and create not one single offload? In 80 minutes, South Africa managed four clean line breaks versus England’s 14, and that tells you they were attacking the contact and not the space.

“The line-out call in the first-half defined this absolute muddled thinking. The only play in that situation that could spare England’s line was the one they chose – high risk long ball to the back and (Tom) Curry turned them over. It was almost comical how bad their execution was.

“Nothing was more telling that the last 20 minutes. 12-11 down, and wave after wave hitting the England red zone. South Africa have two fly-halves on (Elton Jantjies and Handre Pollard) yet at no point did they look like they considered the obvious play – a three point droppie from which England may never have come back from. Instead they drove deep and got turned over.

“Yes, I will go on record as saying I felt England dodged a bullet with the Farrell hit at the end, but the Boks had 79 other minutes to close that game off.”

Man and ball

“On the plus side for the hosts, whilst Henry Slade and Ben Te’o occasionally doglegged the primary defence, the scramble ‘D’, led by the outstanding rookie Mark Wilson, was absolutely exceptional.

“Key to this, I believe, was a half-time discussion; England are moving to a new defensive system led by John Mitchell of man-watching rather than the Paul Gustard ‘ball-watching’ system.

“This relies upon a tighter midfield defensive structure and in the first-half, I feel England fell between two stools, confusing the two systems. At half-time, they tightened up and focused completely on the man-watching D system, and with the Springboks attacking contact rather than space, the turnovers mounted and frustration crept in,” noted the former All Black.

“There was enough half breaks to conclude that England’s backline were a millimetre away from some lovely moves and I saw enough shape, with big guys running off the 10 and getting their loosies in the wide channel to see what they were trying to achieve, although Elliot Daly and others were culpable in making some poor attacking calls in the second-half.”

He added on this weekend: “They’ll be in a very positive mindset for the game, with the caveat that their penalty count was way too high for a top Test team and I feel the final score may be a little closer than many are predicting this coming Saturday.”

The key match-ups

“There’s a few delightful personal battles to savour on Saturday too,” smiled Evans.

“Sonny Bill Williams versus Ben Te’o is a continuation of the Lions first Test 2017. Te’o is a big defensive unit and he’ll be desperate to prevent the big SBW offloads. Key to this is the role of the second man into the contact, looking to clamp the ball or prevent Sonny Bill freeing his arms up. It’s one for the midfield purists to savour – two big skilled units going head to head.

“Number eight Mark Wilson was simply outstanding last weekend and the tough Cumbrian will relish a shot at the best eight in the world, the sublime Kieran Read. Wilson is the sort of guy that will want to come out and give Kieran a bloody nose! I like the way he’s adapted to every challenge thrown at him as he comes to Test rugby relatively late in his career and again, it’s a clash to relish.

“And lastly, as a fly-half myself, I cannot wait to see Farrell versus Beauden Barrett again at 10. You might think they’ve got contrasting styles, but the commonality is they both eat, breathe and sleep rugby! Beauden has fast added Test control to his wonderful natural skill set, and Farrell defines England’s durability and character.

“It will be a huge head to head, with no quarter asked and none given, but one thing is certain, England will need more than the character and grit that got them through last weekend if they’re to scale the heights of a Test win versus New Zealand.

“I’m looking forward to it!”

Once again, we thank Nick for his time and look forward to welcoming back former Ireland hooker Shane Byrne next week to preview all things Irish. One of the most naturally gifted fly-halves in the game, Evans played 16 times for New Zealand, scoring 103 points, before he moved north to Harlequins in 2008 a club he represented 208 times before joining the coaching staff in 2017.

by James While