Saturday at Twickenham was bonkers. England looked set for a demoralising, depressing margin of defeat against a better, more aligned All Blacks side before a plot twist that even a Hollywood film script would struggle to imagine materialized to provide a fireworks-style denouement.
Pity any England fan who quit and headed for the exit after Jordie Barrett dissected the posts with his casual 71st-minute drop goal which stretched the All Blacks lead to 25-6. That appeared to be that for the blunted English attack.
However, sudden momentum swings are a wonderful asset in rugby and the ball-shifting heroics that suddenly ignited were a joy for everyone to watch unless you were a Kiwi left dumbstruck by the callowness of your napping team coming down the finish straight.
All previous concrete opinions were swashbucklingly tipped on their head – England were no longer as bad as they had looked and the All Blacks were no longer as good as they looked, and the 25-all draw that resulted was essentially in keeping with the inconsistencies of both teams over the course of 2022.
Only time can tell if their respective shortcomings are a positive towards getting things perfect for World Cup 2023 or damaging evidence that they really are short the tools to lift the trophy in Paris.
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 19, 2022
There was only one way that Eddie Jones was going to play things post-game. Beaming with the catwalk smile of someone who had just walked away from the roulette table having gambled everything in desperation and somehow beaten the house, he insisted that he always believed in his England side and that he had never given up hope that they would come good against the All Blacks. Yeah right!
“No, no, I thought we played with tremendous spirit in the first half,” he brazenly claimed when asked straight up if he thought the game was gone. “I thought New Zealand were superb in the first half, I can’t recall as New Zealand side playing as well as they did in the first half, aggressive, sharp around the ruck, good attacking kicks and we just had to hand in there .
“We hung in there, hung in there, and then start of the second half we were able to put some pressure back on them and the first 20 minutes of the second half I thought we were the dominant team but it didn’t convert to any points. And then all of a sudden someone blows some magic dust and the passes start to click, the lines were a bit sharper.”
That “didn’t convert into any points” was interesting as England were obsessed with kicking penalties to touch rather than taking points. There was one award straight in front of the posts in the vicinity of the ten-metre line around the hour mark, a chance that was well within the compass of Marcus Smith compared to some other penalty kicks that would have been more to the side of the side.
Three points then would have reduced the margin to 9-22 and made it a more manageable two-score game. Instead, it was drilled into the 22 and after a few minutes of faffing about, the chance was lost and with it some valuable time. With hindsight, three points then would have made the winning difference and transformed the whole debate around this England team and not ignited the heated conversation about whether Smith should have kicked the ball dead to finish the game or not.
So inconsistent do England remain, no one can argue with any certainty that they are on an upward trajectory ten months out from the World Cup. As it stands, they are currently at a 50 per cent success rate for 2022 – five wins, five defeats and a draw. Beating South Africa is now a must.
The 23-man riddle
England coach Jones was cock-a-hoop about the contribution of his so-called finishers, which was quite a song and dance in sharp contrast to the demoralizing conservatism of 13 days earlier when he left unused paid Dave Ribbans and Jack Singleton rooted to the bench in the loss to Argentina.
As someone who constantly preaches how the sport is now a 23-man game, it was a bad mark on his report card. Saturday was the opposite. The alterations commenced with the whole starting front row getting hooked as early as the 53rd minute, and the bench was totally cleared when midfielder Guy Porter, whose step inside was critical to the equalizing converted try, was sent on 15 minutes later to play on the wing.
Porter wasn’t alone in helping to turn the seemingly dead and buried contest on its head. Mako Vunipola made seven rousing carries, big man Ribbans exuberantly exhibited deft handling with two tempo-quickening offloads and, of course, there was the marvelous Will Stuart grabbing two tries in seven minutes when he had drawn a blank in his previous 23 appearances. Remarkable efforts in a remarkable denouement.
“For us, we’re building a team that has got to be able to play in a number of different ways and that was the great thing about that last little bit,” chirped Jones, as if the bonkers conclusion was something he had scripted to happen as it did.
“That’s some of the things we have been working on, to play a much more aggressive attacking game and we were able to do that. And just the role of the 23, just so important for us, that the 23 wins the game.
“I thought our finishers came on and really improved the game we wanted to play, and sometimes that happens. Mako came on and ran some really good lines in the center of the field that enabled us to attack a bit straighter on the outside, so the game changes. It’s a really important game for us that we played with such spirit.”
That still doesn’t explain two weekends ago and Jones’ unsuccessful 21-man approach.
Referee Mathieu Raynal, an emergency appointment last Tuesday following the unavailability of Nic Berry due to personal reasons, was the recipient of regular groans from the partisan Twickenham crowd and yet, the game balanced itself out for England. Of the 28 penalties awarded, they were evenly shared at 14 pieces.
One moment, though, was intriguing given the controversial anti-time-wasting decision the French official made against Bernard Foley in the September Rugby Championship game that tipped the way of the All Blacks when they were unexpectedly handed possession from which they nabbed the winning score in Melbourne.
Raynal paid a price for his overall TRC performance as the only Autumn Nations Series match he was scheduled to referee this month was this weekend’s Romania-Samoa game in Bucharest – hardly the high-profile gig he has been used to. However, injury to Jaco Peyper left him in charge of Ireland-Fiji last weekend and Berry’s cry-off then handed him the England-All Blacks appointment. A crazy sequence of events after he had been so cold-shouldered.
It was widely debated at the time whether his time-wasting call was something that would be seen more often in the sport, given the general disenchantment of fans with stoppages and slow play, so it was interesting how Raynal penalized New Zealand at a 22- meter lineout four minutes from the interval due to a delay by Codie Taylor throwing in.
It initially threw the hooker as his next effort after England kicked out the free was crooked, but his next hurried-up throw provided the platform for the penalty that the All Blacks stroked over on the blow of half-time for 17-3. The moral of the story? Taylor had learned his too-slow lesson from him. Well played, Raynal.
The ‘missing’ fans
Jones’ post-game joviality even extended to making a smart remark about a Twickenham attendance that somehow wasn’t at full capacity. The fixture was a massive draw. Unlike last week against Japan, as soon as you walked out of the train station on Saturday you were confronted with a line of ticket touts openly canvassing for business even though there were police close by.
As the headcount, there were tickets that had gone astray as 81,364 was the official attendance announced in the stadium near the end of the match and the coach absenteeism was something the coach referenced with tongue in cheek while praising the fans who did turn up.
“The other significant thing was the support from the crowd,” he suggested when analyzing the England revival. “The crowd was absolutely fantastic which definitely lifted the players. We are grateful to the 81,641 (sic) that were there. I don’t know what happened to the other 349. They will be kicking themselves and we hope there will be 82,000 there next week, complete, because it is going to be a hell of a game (versus the Springboks).” It sure will.
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