England rattle All Blacks but fail to hold on to early lead

Side’s form in narrow defeat to best team in world a sign of what’s to come at World Cup

 England’s Courtney Lawes  charges the ball down from TJ Perenara of New Zealand   at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday in London, United Kingdom. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

England’s Courtney Lawes charges the ball down from TJ Perenara of New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday in London, United Kingdom. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

 

England 15 New Zealand 16

The rain came 30 minutes before kick-off but the storm broke only when the match started, the first collision the opening crack of thunder. It blew for two hours until, in the very end, England lost a brilliantly entertaining, brutally competitive game, 16-15. They had pushed the best team in the world right to the brink.

Back in 2016, Eddie Jones promised that “everything we are doing now is about coming up with a game to beat New Zealand, to make them uncomfortable. You can and hopefully will see that by 2018.” Two years later, England were two points away from making good on his promise. Even so, Jones said he was proud of them. And rightly so.

There have been times this year when it felt like this match against the All Blacks had come 12 months too late. Last year England were so keen, so confident, that there were people who wanted to bump the All Blacks’ autumn match against the Barbarians just so England could get in an early shot at them. But the team have had a long, rough 12 months, suffering losses to Scotland, Ireland, France, and South Africa. The team that reached a peak in the world rankings when they beat Scotland by 40 points at Murrayfield for their 18th straight win last March belongs to a different era. Half of that side are gone now: four injured, three dropped, another retired.

Starting over

So this autumn it is almost as if Jones is starting over. And in that light, the first 30 minutes were a revelation. That stretch was as good as anything England have produced since he took charge. They exploded into a 15-0 lead, one try a stiletto blow, the other the bludgeon of a blunt club. Ben Youngs set up the first one when he spotted that Damian McKenzie had drifted out of position at fullback and put a fine, long, looping pass through to Chris Ashton. And then forwards won the second with a drive from a lineout. England’s backs came rushing in to help them out, one by one. By the time they reached the try-line England had 13 men swarming behind the ball.

Every Englishman out there was playing well. But in the middle them all, one of the rookies, Sam Underhill, was having the match of his young life. Underhill, only just back in the team as a replacement for Tom Curry, had a barnstorming game. He is a man who seems to have been put on Earth for just one purpose – to make tackles. And Underhill does not make them so much as smash, crash and batter them. He hammered McKenzie down so often that the All Black will be checking over his shoulder when he gets into bed for fear that Underhill’s about to come charging out of the bathroom and get him again.

Being hit by Underhill must be like being tackled by an avalanche. There is not much you can do about it other than brace and pray you come up breathing. Late in the second half, he proved that he knows what do when he has got the ball too. Courtney Lawes charged down TJ Perenara’s kick, and Underhill caught the rebound. He was one long sprint away from the try-line, so he set off towards it, lumbering along as fast as his aching legs would carry him. Underhill had done so much work already it was a surprise he could still manage to stand, let alone run, and he seemed to go almost in slow motion.

Great tries

The problem was that Beauden Barrett was in his way. Barrett, World Rugby’s player of the year in 2016 and 2017, one of the most gifted backs ever to play the game. But Underhill did him, made him look a rube. He stepped one way, sold him the dummy, and cut the other and dived over the line. It was one of the great tries. Or it would have been, if Lawes had not been fractionally offside. It was the TMO who pointed it out. England’s fans were furious. They had been in ornery mood all afternoon. The haka was drowned out by their chorus of Swing Low and when the whistle finally went, the referee, Jérôme Garcès, was roundly booed.

Jones, though, had the good grace not to complain about it afterwards. And in truth, it was not the TMO’s intervention that cost England so much as the sloppy mistakes they made as the second half wore on. Dylan Hartley came off at half-time and, once he had gone, England’s lineout went horribly wrong. In the second half, it was a 50-50 proposition. Partly because Hartley’s replacement, Jamie George, just was not accurate enough with his throwing, but also because Brodie Retallick did such a good job of challenging for the ball in the air. England kept coming, all the same, and outplayed New Zealand in the last 20 minutes, when the All Blacks usually run away with the game.

Jones argued that if England only had another five minutes, they might even have won. And he is right, they were coming on strong. The good news is that even if they didn’t have five minutes they needed for this match, they do have another 12 months before the World Cup. Comes around. And soon enough, some of those injured players will be back, too, the likes of Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph, Billy and Mako Vunipola. England have turned the corner this autumn. This match felt like a watershed, a loss they will be all the stronger for in the weeks and months ahead. – Guardian

ENGLAND: E Daly; C Ashton, H Slade, B Te’o, J May; O Farrell, B Youngs; B Moon, D Hartley, K Sinckler; M Itoje, G Kruis;  B Shields, S Underhill, M Wilson.

Replacements: J George for Hartley (41 mins),  H Williams for Sinckler,  A Hepburn for Moon (both 58), D Care for Youngs (63), C Lawes for Shields (65), C Ewels for Kruis (66), J Nowell for Ashton (68), G Ford for Te’o (72).

NEW ZEALAND: D McKenzie; B Smith, J Goodhue, SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith; K Tuinukuafe, C Taylor, O Franks; S Whitelock, B Retallick;  L Squire, J Savea, K Read.

Replacements: D Coles for Taylor, N Laulala for Franks (both 44 mins), S Barrett for Squire (52),  O Tu’ungafasi for Tuinukuafe (57),  R Mo’unga for McKenzie, TJ Perenara for A Smith (both 63), M Todd for Savea (68).

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