By facing up to New Zealand's pedigree, England proved that every underdog can have his day
FROM THE BLINDSIDE:Teams can be defeatist facing the All Blacks but England showed what attitude and momentum can do, writes ALAN QUINLAN
It’s not often I’d be pleasantly surprised by an England win but you couldn’t feel any other way watching them beat New Zealand on Saturday.
Like everybody else, I assumed the All Blacks would finish off their year in style and stretch their unbeaten run to 21 games. I definitely expected England to put it up to them and to be really physical but I just didn’t see how they’d beat them. Refusing to lie down is one thing – actually converting it into a win is another altogether.
Especially against a team that does so many things right, nearly without thinking about it. I watched New Zealand really closely against Wales the week before and for 35-40 minutes they were close to perfect.
They weren’t committing huge numbers to the breakdown but they were still being efficient because each player was so strong in collision and in their contact work. I didn’t think England would be able to match them.
As it turned out, I was wrong because that’s exactly how England went about the game. It was sheer physicality that got them a foothold in the game – huge aggression that knocked New Zealand back time after time. Very often, that’s what rugby is all about.
It’s being physical, winning your collisions, putting in big impact tackles. It reminded me of Ireland’s second Test against the All Blacks in the summer in Christchurch, except this time England got the luck that Ireland could have done with. An intercept try would have gone a long way for Ireland that night.
England were better on Saturday than Ireland were during the summer but the similarities were there between the two performances. The only way to compete with New Zealand is to have a massive work-rate, to bounce up out of tackles, to show them your physicality won’t stop or even flag as the game goes on.
You had to admire the way England went about it, even though it felt a bit odd to be shouting for them.
All in all, it’s good for the game. It shows what the underdog can do and it’s no harm for everybody to be reminded of what’s possible every once in a while. People were thinking the All Blacks were invincible but England have reminded us that nobody is. That’s not how sport works.
Everybody who’s ever played sport has been in the underdog team plenty of times and most of us have been lucky enough to be on a team that overturned the odds with a big performance.
Afterwards, you always say that something about the week just felt right, that there was a belief in the squad there all the way through the build-up. And it’s always true – you do use hindsight after a win to point to how good everyone in the team was feeling and how much you were all looking forward to overturning the odds.
The thing is, it happens just as often that the belief is there all week and you still go out and lose.
Richie McCaw gives me a mention in his autobiography, latching on to something I said in the run up to our game against New Zealand in 2008. “Irish loose forward Alan Quinlan makes all the right noises about the new-look team before the match,” he writes, “and says that while a few years ago Ireland didn’t believe they could win, now there’s confidence that, ‘If we play to our potential we certainly have a good chance.’ There’s the difference between Ireland and New Zealand right there – if I said before a game that we had a good chance of winning, it would be regarded as defeatist.”
I remember that game well – it was the last one I ever played for Ireland. We genuinely went into it full of belief, however defeatist it might have sounded to McCaw. It didn’t do us much good though – we lost 22-3 and I got a three-week ban after it for stamping on Rodney So’oailo. Stephen Ferris played the following week against Argentina and I never got a look-in again.
But even though you’ll have just as many weeks where that belief doesn’t translate itself into a result, you have to keep doing it.
Otherwise a result like England’s last Saturday just wouldn’t be possible. They’ve been down and battered for a long time and they had every reason to go into that game doubting whether they had it in them to get a win. Everything was against them.
That would have stung a lot in the England dressingroom. Think about it – they come from a rugby country that has never historically been used to being thought of as underdogs. I’d be certain they would have been going around telling each other that this has gone on long enough, that they needed to put a stop to the idea that they’re an also-ran rugby nation.
If that kind of idea takes hold, it’s a very difficult rut to get out of. The only way to do it is to believe you have it in you when the rest of the world doesn’t.
Wrote them off
There have been signs that England were coming back. I thought near the end of the Six Nations they looked to have something about them again. But then they faltered again in this November series against Australia and South Africa and I wrote them off. I doubted they had it in them.
But rugby is a game where the form book doesn’t always have the biggest say. In most sports, the better team, the one with the most quality in it, usually wins.
That’s not always necessarily the case in rugby. So much of it is attitude, so much of it is momentum. A game can change on the back of a big tackle or even just a line break.
Manu Tuilagi ran over Dan Carter on Saturday – when do you ever see that happening to Dan Carter? A break like that, going past a player like that, is worth much more to a team than just whatever it is that results from the attack. Seeing Tuilagi do what he did gave an injection of belief into the rest of the England players and to the crowd as well.
The momentum a team gets from something like that is huge. Not only did England grow on the back of it but a few doubts must have crept in for New Zealand as well. If they were tired, if they were complacent, if they were a little bit off after a long year where they’ve been striving for perfection in every game after the high of winning the World Cup, then that’s where it was going to show.
When a team goes 20 games unbeaten, it only stands to reason that in some of those games the opposition were as good as done before they ever went out onto the pitch. England went out and showed them they weren’t thinking that way at all.
Good for them. And good for everybody else in world rugby.
Maybe McCaw was right, maybe there is a defeatist mindset for some countries when they’re facing New Zealand. Maybe it’s there without teams even being conscious of it.
Ability to beat England
Ireland have never beaten them so maybe it’s the only way we have any right to feel about a game against them, however much we tell ourselves otherwise. But we’re never worried about our ability to beat England any more – certainly not with the way the games between us and them have gone over the past decade. So why should it be any different with the All Blacks?
It would be very easy to get the wrong idea about New Zealand rugby. I’ve spent a lot of time there and when you hear them talk about how they expect to win every game, you can get the wrong idea and decide that they’re just naturally arrogant. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think they just live and breathe the game and their systems are set up so that they have no excuse for not winning each time the All Blacks take the field.
What I was really impressed with on Saturday above and beyond England’s performance was just how humble and gracious McCaw was in defeat. No excuses, no whining about being sick during the week, just full of compliments for England.
For a team that’s so used to winning, you can only admire it when they lose in the right way as well.
For the rest of the world, England’s win means a bit of hope. Not so much hope in New Zealand being vulnerable now, more so in the reminder that sport can surprise you and your fortunes can turn around very quickly. It happened for Ireland against Argentina and now for England too.
Midway through the autumn internationals, the prospects were grim for both countries but now they’ll both fancy their chances for the Six Nations.
It just goes to show that a lot can happen in a week of sport.