10 minutes of terror put a massive damper on what started out as one of the All Blacks’ best performances in recent times when they tackled England at Twickenham on Saturday evening.
Having built a 22-6 lead late in the piece, the game looked done and dusted when Beauden Barrett nailed a drop goal with 10 to play.
After winning back their short kick-off, England trucked the ball up the field via Mako Vunipola. From the breakdown, the ball was spun left to Marcus Smith, who was able to easily glide past reserve All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala.
Smith was brought to ground by Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett less than a meter out from the goal line, and Barrett immediately pounced on the ball without showing a clear release.
While Laulala and TJ Perenara were able to stop England’s Will Stuart from barreling over the line, a questionable second movement saw Stuart eventually lurch over for the try – with Barrett yellow-carded for his earlier infringement.
Smith couldn’t add the conversion but England found themselves 14 points down with eight minutes to play and what seemed like an impossibility after Barrett’s drop goal was suddenly within almost in reach.
New Zealand went long from the ensuing kick-off, with Billy Vunipola trucking the ball up to the 22. England churned through a handful of phases with the forwards, fighting their way up to the 10-metre line, before swinging the ball wide to the left where Jonny May was eventually brought to ground.
The All Blacks numbered up for the next phase but a backdoor pass from Maro Itoje to Henry Slade left the defense flummoxed and David Ribbans – in just his second Test appearance – was eventually able to gallop between Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock before throwing a one- armed offload to Slade.
Slade sent the ball out to Freddie Steward who weaved inside Rieko Ioane and bouldered over Mo’unga before hitting the turf 10 meters from New Zealand’s line.
Two phases later, and Steward was crashing over the line on the right-hand flank. The All Blacks hadn’t numbered up on the blindside and with Lienert-Brown parked as the first pillar at the breakdown and Ioane guarding the sideline, Steward had far too much room to move and was able to score almost untouched.
Smith made no mistakes with his second conversion attempt of the night and with a little over five minutes to play, England trailed by just seven.
Vunipola once again received the ball from the kick-off, setting up a ruck just outside of the 22.
The back-door pass was again the call from England – but this time the All Blacks were able to contain the attack. Unfortunately for New Zealand, however, Whitelock found himself trapped at the base of the ruck and England sent the ball deep into NZ’s half.
The All Blacks were able to repel the first phase of attack, with reserve halfback Ben Youngs bizarrely putting the ball to boot with no chasers, and Jordie Barrett cleaned up the backfield before hitting the deck six meters from NZ’s line. Referee Mathieu Raynal soon blew his whistle for the umpteenth time of the evening – this time in the visitors’ favor – and Mo’unga was able to clear the ball to just outside the 22 with just under three minutes to play.
After two phases of trucking the ball up with the forwards, TJ Perenara launched a box kick into the skies – something which coach Ian Foster acknowledged after the match was the right call. As with Youngs’ previous kick, however, the chase was almost non-existent, and May brought the ball up to the 10-metre line.
While England were spread out across the width of the field, just three All Blacks players were defending half the pitch and the home side were able to accrue 30 easy meters by spreading the ball to the right sideline. Five meters out from the line, England again turned to their forwards to deal the final blow – and it didn’t take long for Stuart to bag his second try of the evening.
From close range, Smith converted and the scores were locked at 25-all.
England immediately kicked the ball out at the next opportunity, ending the contest – and while the English players might have been somewhat pleased to escape from what looked like a big defeat, the All Blacks would have rightly been feeling like they’d suffered a last -minute loss.
It was a horrific end to what started out as one of New Zealand’s best performances of the year and perhaps indicated some mental fatigue, with the All Blacks switching off and showing no signs of being capable of dealing with a one-man disadvantage.
Yellow and red cards will be plentiful at next year’s Rugby World Cup – Argentina and Scotland accrued five in their match this weekend alone. The truth is that if you can’t play with 14 men in this day and age, then you can’t play professional rugby – and the All Blacks certainly weren’t capable of playing with 14 men today.
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