n my preview for this game, I placed a lot of stock on the fact that Brodie Retallick had (cheekily or otherwise) implied that he didn’t know who any of the England team were. Now, in this day and age of video analysis, I suspect that he may have just been doing a bit of jesting (these Kiwis have an odd sense of humour – try watching the bizarre, but admittedly excellent, Flight of the Concordes), but it certainly summed up the situation nicely as the All Blacks prepared to take on England at Eden Park on Saturday.
Here were the 2013 Invincibles, unbeaten since November 2012, with their last defeat before that coming prior to the 2011 World Cup. A side with match winners all over the park, despite the fact that world class players such as Kieran Read and Dan Carter were injured/sunbathing for this first test match. Despite a couple of substitute debutants on the bench (including a long overdue introduction for the superb TJ Peranara) this was the most established side in world rugby, playing at the most intimidating venue in world rugby. And against them were a side who – apparently – nobody knew, with 4th choice players filling in at hooker, fly half and centre. Surely it would be no contest? Surely England’s realistic objective should just be to ensure that the Kiwis knew who they were by the end of the match?
England actually set about introducing themselves in spectacular fashion straight away from the kick off, with Chris Robshaw leading the way. The England skipper burst straight through a ruck in centre-field, with just Israel Dagg ahead of him and James Haskell on his shoulder, but his support was denied when Ma’a Nonu clearly hauled the support back off the ball. It was spotted by referee Nigel Owens, but it was just a penalty – although, to my mind, there is little doubt that it should have been a yellow card, since it was a cynical infringement in a try scoring opportunity. Perhaps Nonu was saved by the fact that the game was only 2 minutes old, but either way Freddie Burns coolly slotted the 3 points to give England the early lead.
The All Blacks were looking rusty to say the least, with the ball going to ground often and veterans such as Nonu booting the ball out on the full, but they were given a prime attacking position when Owens made his second blunder by wrongly calling a knock on against Jonny May, even though the ball clearly went backwards. The mistake allowed the hosts to set up camp in the England 22, where they forced a penalty, which was stroked over by Aaron Cruden.
England may had been written off by the majority of those watching at Eden Park, but they then delivered a stark warning to remind everybody that they meant business. Robshaw and Haskell once again made metres down the left, and Ben Youngs recycled quickly to give Burns the chance to slide over in the corner – but play was pulled back for a slight knock-on by Mike Brown. The warning shot had been fired, however, and it was difficult to argue that they didn’t deserve a 3 point lead after Burns slotted another penalty 8 minutes later.
Things were going well for the Leicester-found fly half as he shook off the rustiness of a poor season with a succession of devastating up-and-unders and smart touch finders, and it was one of his kicks which forced a scrum to allow Joe Marler to win a penalty, which Burns again nailed from distance. The men in white were now 9 – 3 up, and Eden Park had gone very quiet indeed – aside from the relentless booing of the kicker, which is frankly pathetic from supporters of a team as iconic and dominant as the All Blacks.
Games against New Zealand, though, carry a feeling of inevitability with them and, as you would expect, the Kiwis began to pile the pressure back on the English. Cruden’s kicking was putting the All Blacks into dangerous positions, with Aaron Smith probing expertly for gaps, but it was English errors which were giving them points. Firstly, Chris Robshaw came in at the side of a ruck and then Haskell was penalised at a breakdown, allowing the Hurricanes 10 to slot both kicks to draw the scores level. With half-time looming, the visitors launched one further attack, with Manu Tuilagi breaking away after collecting a kick ricochet, but Burns was just off-target with an attempted drop goal – the only mistake of a very impressive half for the talented 10.
England had made New Zealand and the supporters acutely aware that they believed they could win the game with even a mix n’match team out, but the hosts were level largely due to errors from players and – it had to be said – Nigel Owens at key times. But there was nothing lucky about the way the All Blacks started the second period, coming out fired up and forcing England onto the back foot immediately, with Dagg scything his way through the defence to bring the crowd to life. For 10 minutes, the All Blacks pressed, with Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick making hard yards in the middle of the field, and Nigel Owens yet again gifting them field position with another shocker of a knock-on call. England’s defence held firm, however, with Burns tackling bravely and Robshaw and Geoff Parling getting through mountains of work, although their line came dangerously close to being breached when Aaron Smith kicked ahead only for Jerome Kaino to knock on with the line begging.
But it was from this resulting scrum that England re-established themselves, with Ben Morgan galloping off the base to charge 30 metres, before Kyle Eastmond stepped past Nonu and Cruden to launch a stunning attack into All Blacks territory, with May and Brown also making good yards. It all came to nothing as Dave Wilson knocked on in a promising position – for the third time – but the momentum was now with the visitors. May then kicked ahead with a hopeful grubber, but substitute Beauden Barrett made a hash of the loose ball, allowing the Gloucester man to regather right by the All Black line, forcing Malakai Fekitoa to concede a penalty for not releasing. Given the fact that Fekitoa conceded right on his own line when quick ball may well have resulted in a try, the debutant can consider himself lucky not to have seen yellow, but England settled for another Burns penalty to give them the lead.
It was a lead which lasted all of three minutes though, as Cruden punished Yarde for going offside with another 3 points, but things were about to get much worse. Tuilagi made a huge gallop into the Kiwi 22, shrugging off 4 tacklers in the process, but the good work was undone when Ben Youngs spilt the ball at the ruck, allowing Retallick to gallop 40 metres towards the line before being hauled down superbly by Yarde. The new Quins man then unfortunately lay all over the wrong side of the ball, and rightfully received a yellow card for his troubles, but Owens had demonstrated an infuriating inconsistency by yellowing this offence and not the previous All Black offence, which was closer to the try line. I am generally a big fan of Owens and I have very rarely claimed that a referee had a decisive impact on a game due to their mistakes, but this – for me – was one such occasion. Cruden put the hosts ahead for the first time in the game, but the real news was that England were down to 14 men.
Enter Danny Cipriani. 6 years out of an England jersey and, judging by the reaction of the Eden Park faithful, the most unpopular man in New Zealand for some reason. But he responded superbly, making a slicing break through the defence and forcing another penalty, which he slotted from 40 metres, demonstrating ‘nads of solid iron in the process. But, I mentioned a feeling of inevitability earlier – and, with 14 men, that translates as certainty. With Cruden running a kickable penalty, the All Blacks hammered the English line and, although they were held up short once, they weren’t to be denied, as Ben Smith flicked on the ball beautifully to Conrad Smith to score in the corner. It was typical, gutsy and heartbreaking All Blacks, and another reminder as to why they are the undisputed kings of world rugby. Cruden missed the conversion, but with 1 minute to play, the game was won.
England went down 20 – 15, and there is no shame in that scoreline. There will be pride but there will also be frustration – frustration that they could and should have beaten a near-full strength All Blacks outfit at Eden Park with a weakened XV, but they were undone by unforced errors at key times. It’s food for thought though, and Lancaster has some big decisions to make next week after Haskell, Eastmond, Burns and Parling all impressed despite obviously not being first choice. I’m not sure if they’ll all earn a start, but one thing is for sure – New Zealand sure knows who they are now.
New Zealand Player Ratings
Israel Dagg – 6 – Surprisingly shaky under the high ball but one run reminded us of his threat
Ben Smith – 6 – Kept quiet but a couple of classy moments were produced at key times.
Conrad Smith – 7 – Quality player as always. Defended intelligently and made the call to go blind for the try.
Ma’a Nonu – 4 – This should have been the game where he stamped his authority on proceedings. He didn’t, making mistakes and being outshone by newbie half his size.
Corey Jane – 5 – Effectively invisible. I didn’t realise he was on the field.
Aaron Cruden – 7 – Crucially, he was flawless off the tee. Not always perfect with the ball in hand, he nonetheless had a solid game.
Aaron Smith – 8 – The best Kiwi on the park. Very quick brain and feet made for a dangerous combination.
Tony Woodcock– 6 – Held his own against Davey Wilson but was not conspicuous elsewhere.
Dane Coles – 5 – Under a lot of pressure in the lineout and couldn’t influence in the loose.
Owen Franks – 5 – Joe Marler creamed him in the scrum and he didn’t really recover
Sam Whitelock – 7 – A physical, brooding display which helped the hosts get a foothold in the game.
Brodie Retallick – 7 – He will certainly know his opposition now, but he still impressed with his athleticism and one great break in particular.
Liam Messam – 8 – A brick wall in defence and a real menace at the breakdown, slowing English ball down constantly
Richie McCaw – 7 – Not vintage Richie, but he grew into the game with a couple of key turnovers late on. Largely outshone by Robshaw, though.
Jerome Kaino – 6 – Solid in defence but there wasn’t really a whole lot else he offered. They really missed Read’s athleticism.
Beauden Barrett struggled at full back but Malakai Fekitoa looked pretty lively, whilst Victor Vito was instrumental in the build up to the score.
England Player Ratings
Mike Brown – 5 – Like Dagg, was surprisingly unsettled under the high ball and didn’t get the space to break free in attack.
Marland Yarde – 5 – Yellow card was deserved but necessary. Couldn’t really get into the game though
Manu Tuilagi – 8 – If you think England are better off without him – or with him on the wing – you need your head examining. England’s best attacking player, beating 5 defenders for 84 metres.
Kyle Eastmond – 7 – A fine showing from somebody who is supposedly 4th choice. Acquitted himself well in defence and provided options – and incision – in attack.
Jonny May – 6 – A mixed bag. In the first half he seemed to be intent on making mistakes, but later on he contributed with a couple of threatening breaks.
Freddie Burns – 8 – What a statement. He was calm, assured and accurate – everything England needed, but perhaps didn’t expect, him to be.
Ben Youngs – 6 – One mistake let him down badly, but before that his service had been sharp and his kicking excellent.
Joe Marler – 7 – A huge effort from the loosehead. Scrummaged Franks off the park and carried hard too.
Rob Webber – 7 – Deadly accurate in the lineout, but he still doesn’t offer enough in the loose in my book.
Dave Wilson – 4 – His scrummaging was OK, but his hands were unacceptably atrocious, giving away great attacking positions three times.
Joe Launchbury – 5 – Not his best display. He was smashed in contact a couple of times and he invariably struggled at restarts.
Geoff Parling – 7 – A fine return to form. Ruled the lineout and got about the park well too.
James Haskell – 6 – A very solid display. He was physical and energetic throughout, and could have been in for a score had it not been for Nonu’s naughtiness.
Chris Robshaw – 9 – If you are one of the lazy detractors who claims he is not a ‘true’ seven, you have been proven wrong yet again. He tackled, hit rucks, passed, and made more metres than any other forward on the pitch. Man of the match.
Ben Morgan – 8 – Yet again he delivers in an England shirt. A solid presence interjected with a couple of barnstorming runs.
Danny Cipriani caught the eye for all the right reasons as he looked to impress with the ball in hand.