I would like to have thought that perhaps some neutrals may find themselves supporting England for once in the build up to this third test. After all, who wants to see a side win SEVENTEEN games on the bounce? It’s boring. New Zealand, for the last 2/3 years, have seemed so far ahead of everybody that they may as well be brought down a peg or two, right? Well, possibly, but I don’t think anyone apart from the English wanted the English to be the ones to knock the kings from their thrown, a notion that was confirmed by the sight of an enthusiastic Welshman in a pub (tucking into a full English, ironically) who declared, before the gam, “Bacon and a battering of the English – a perfect start to the day”. Perhaps he should have saved his smugness until after his side had played South Africa, but the sentiment still stood.
The fact was that despite two tests where England had – for long periods of the game – matched and even bettered their opponents, there were two defeats on the board. The inability to finish chances on a regular basis was continually being brought into the spotlight, and rightly so. But with injuries and form dictating selection in such a way that this was arguably Lancaster’s strongest line-up of the Tour, was this to be the game where they finally made the step up into the league which only the All Blacks themselves occupy?
Er, no, in a way. The omens were bad for England from the start as Freddie Burns first miscued his kick off so it dropped short and then missed a relatively straightforward (albeit long range) attempt after Ben Youngs and Chris Robshaw had burgled the ball off Kieran Read at the ensuing scrum. And the All Blacks made them pay immediately, as Ma'a Nonu, Corey Jane and Aaron Smith all offloaded well in the midfield – taking advantage of a loose pass – to put Julian Savea away on the left, with the big winger evading Mike Brown's despairing tackle as he plunged over. Aaron Cruden couldn't add the extras, but now we knew – the All Blacks meant business.
Burns got his side on the score sheet following a penalty for offside from the kick off, but soon the hosts were at it again as Nonu sucked Kyle Eastmond in with a good running line, allowing Cruden to scoot through a gap and fire a pass out to that man Savea, who stepped inside the cover to crash over. We'd barely had 10 minutes and, after Cruden's conversion, the scoreline sat at 12 – 3. Not a good start, but it could have been a lot worse, as the Kiwis – and in particular, Cruden – found holes through England's midfield time and again, with Eastmond continuously stepping in when it wasn't required. Only a marginal forward pass call as Savea slid over yet again saved England from the embarrassment of having a hat-trick scored against them after 15 minutes – the last time that happened, there was a certain Mr Lomu on the pitch.
Burns and Cruden then exchanged penalties before things finally did get worse for England, with Billy Vunipola being harshly shown a yellow card for a slightly high – but clumsy – challenge. The Kiwis needed no second invitation. Playing of quick ball thanks to a strong charge from Malakai Fekitoa, the All Blacks attacked the short side, where Jane left Marland Yarde for dead with a right foot step and fed Aaron Smith, who just had enough gas to avoid Manu Tuilagi and score in the corner for a mesmeric try which Cruden converted.
England were ragged, stunned, outplayed. The All Blacks were fluent, cohesive and incisive…and they weren't done. Despite holding a 22 – 6 lead, they charged straight back at England at cut through them again, with Ben Smith getting outside Burns and selling a dummy to Yarde to scoot through a gap, before feeding Aaron Smith for his second score. Once again, Cruden made no mistake, and England were looking at a dead game in which they would be lucky to keep the score under 70.
Still New Zealand attacked, and England prayed for the half-time hooter – although their defence did hold and they managed a scare of their own, as quick thinking from Youngs sent Chris Ashton away from his own 22. The winger kicked ahead, and the attack came to nothing – but it relieved the pressure and the visitors were happy to go in at 'just' 29 – 6 down. Surely it couldn't get any worse?
Luckily, Stuart Lancaster must have said something at half times – or the All Blacks understandably cracked open the champers – because England roared out of the blocks in a manner that at least resembled the energetic displays they’d put in previously in the two tests. Joe Launchbury, who had previously seemed so weary, got on the outside of Liam Messam (on for the rusty Read) and offloaded back to Youngs, who scorched through the gap and stepped past Ben Smith before offloading to Tuilagi, the big centre barrelling his way to within a metre of the line. From there, Marland Yarde picked up and buried himself over for possibly the closest range score of his life, but Burns’ conversion gave the visitors a glimmer of hope. It may not have been entirely realistic hope, but it was hope none the less.
But suddenly the game didn’t seem beyond reach. Youngs – who had started the second half in electric form, having been a rare positive for England in the first 40 – put Yarde through another gap, only for the winger to be held up over the line by desperate All Blacks defence, and then the scrum half darted through another gap himself to propel his side before the line. But on both occasions, the opportunities came to nothing – a wheeled scrum, the rare sight of Tom Wood being stripped of the ball in contact (by a winger) and awful handling from Luther Burrell all conspired to make sure that England didn’t come away with anything. It was typical of the series. England had started the second half like New Zealand started the first, but where the hosts had 3 tries, the visitors had 1 – the killer instinct just wasn’t there.
The All Blacks clawed their way into the game and up the pitch thanks to a superb Nonu kick, but Burrell was at least providing a more reliable figure in defence than Eastmond, whom he had replaced at half-time. Strong defence from Robshaw and Tuilagi made sure the hosts – even Julian Savea – were kept out, but they were left to rue poor handling again when Youngs spotted acres of space out wide and fed Hartley on his own 5 metre line. The hooker had Ashton outside him with the whole pitch to play with, but the hooker – usually such an assured handler – threw an embarrassingly poor pass forward and into touch. It summed up England’s day.
The men in white did have their moments as the game wore on – twice Yarde surged through the defence, only to be denied by a Burrell knock on and a crunching Savea tackle – and they had the hosts scrambling more than once, resulting in a yellow card for substitute Wyatt Crockett. But ultimately the World Champions were too good. With the hooter gone, they elected to play on rather than kick it out, and Corey Jane took advantage by stepping through flimsy defence from Yarde and Lee Dickson to put Savea in for a deserved hat-trick, leaving the final score 36 – 13.
Savea may have been buying the beers that night, but there was little in the way of cheer for England. They came here with a minimum goal of winning at least 1 Test Match, and they hadn’t achieved it. And they probably should have done, in two of the three tests. But despite that, the Tour hasn’t been a failure. Players have grown up, and Lancaster will now know who he can depend on to perform on the toughest stage. But for the time being, there is no doubt about the world order – now England have to prove that they are the best of the rest.
New Zealand Player Ratings
Ben Smith – 8 – Not perfect this week, merely excellent. A constant threat from the back and has ensured that Israel Dagg will have to produce the form of his life to return to the side.
Corey Jane – 8 – Much better from the Hurricanes winger. Had a superb battle with Yarde where they both made each other look silly at times, but he showed classy touches to set up Aaron Smith and Julian Savea for scores.
Malakai Fekitoa – 7 – A very solid starting debut. Looked completely at home on the Test stage and galloped into defenders with relish.
Ma'a Nonu – 7 – A decent showing, although not as deadly as last week. Caused Eastmond all sorts of problems with his running lines.
Julian Savea – 9 – What a finisher. He must absolutely love playing England. His work rate off his wing was superb as well, adding to a magnificent hat-trick by burying Yarde as the England man tried to make the corner. Man of the Match.
Aaron Cruden – 8 – Sublime for the 45 minutes he was on, stretching the England defence, piercing it himself and putting others through the huge holes he created. The puppet-master of the All Black backline showed he isn't ready to give up his jersey just yet.
Aaron Smith – 8 – Another strong performance for a man who is quickly becoming the best 9 on the planet. Devastating finishing and always looking at options, keeping the defence honest.
Tony Woodcock – 8 – A fine display from a man who has looked off the pace of late. He gave Wilson problems in the scrum and also threw himself around in the loose, carrying well and pinching ball at the breakdown as well.
Dane Coles – 7 – A smart, energetic display. Did a lot of the dirty work and ran a smooth lineout whilst he was on the field, making a sharp break from a crafty set piece move as well.
Owen Franks – 7 – Another step forward for the prop, who gradually wrestled the initiative back from Joe Marler as the series progressed. Part of a strong scrummaging effort.
Brodie Retallick – 8 – Deceptively powerful and supremely athletic, he has been a bulldozing presence ath the breakdown over the last fortnight. Worked his socks off and didn't take a backwards step.
Sam Whitelock – 7 – Unfussy but so influential for his side. A key leader in defence, he made an impressive 9 tackles as the All Blacks refused to let their intensity drop.
Jerome Kaino – 7 – Less conspicuous than last week but still an intimidating presence on the flank, where he outmuscled his England counterparts early on.
Richie McCaw – 7 – Still seems half a yard slower than in previous years, which is understandable, but he did make more tackles than any of his teammates and led from the front.
Kieran Read – 5 – Not a bad comeback, but definitely rusty. Turned over by Ben Youngs early on and only carried three times with very limited effect.
Beauden Barrett looked very sharp once again, but Ryan Crotty could only contribute with a yellow card and Kevin Mealamu seemed to get stage fright every time he had to throw into a lineout.
England Player Ratings
Mike Brown – 6 – Three games too far, I feel. Unable to break the line with the incision he has shown all year for England and also against New Zealand previously. Needs a rest.
Chris Ashton – 5 – Didn't see any of the ball really, and is not really to blame for being caught narrow for the tries since the mistakes were made by the men inside. A couple of promising darts but nothing clear cut.
Manu Tuilagi – 7 – Like Ashton, was forced narrow in defence by Eastmond's decisions, although perhaps Manu should have been more vocal with him. Came into play strongly in the second period though.
Kyle Eastmond – 3 – You had to feel for him. He was targeted relentlessly, forcing him to miss tackles and, on more than one occasion he fell for the 'wrap-ball' which allowed the attack to get outside of him all too easily. A darting run late in the first half was promising but couldn't save him from being subbed.
Marland Yarde – 7 – A real Jekyll-and-Hyde performance. Caught out badly in defence by Coery Jane on a couple of occasions but tore the All Blacks apart in the second half with some strong running, for which he gets a lot of Kudos. Could he have passed the ball for a try in the second half though?
Freddie Burns – 5 – A hard comedown for the fly half. Defended bravely but couldn't lead the defensive line effectively, and made a couple of silly mistakes which just simply weren't there in the first test.
Ben Youngs – 8 – A very decent performance, and one that will hopefully kick him back to the form that can mark him out as one of the world's best. Quick service and intelligent running caused havoc for the All Blacks all game, and also weighed in with an unheralded defensive contribution, making 7 tackles and missing none.
Joe Marler – 6 – Like Mike Brown, he looks spent. Worked tirelessly but couldn't get any dominance against Franks and struggled to carry to great effect in the loose.
Dylan Hartley – 4 – The lineout was decent but it was a mistake-ridden game for the Saints captain. One terrible pass with a break on sticks in the memory and his ineffectual carrying certainly didn't help his cause.
David Wilson – 5 – Lost out in the battle against Woodcock, but at least had a couple of decent trundles this time around without dropping the ball.
Joe Launchbury – 6 – An improved display, with one half-break and offload teeing up a try for Yarde. Tireless in the loose as always, and a solid way to finish his season to take a well-earned rest.
Courtney Lawes – 5 – Another who was hit and miss. Gave away stupid penalties, got himself turned over 4 times, but weighed in with 13 tackles without missing one.
Tom Wood – 5 – Tireless as always in defence but will be frustrated with his carrying, where he was turned over too often – with one drop after a Ben Youngs break proving particularly costly.
Chris Robshaw – 6 – A brave and energetic display once again, he certainly hasn't been found wanting against McCaw. He will be disappointed he couldn't slow more of their ball down in the first half.
Billy Vunipola – 5 – Another who needs a rest. Tried to get motoring but his zip has gone, and his clumsy challenge didn't help England's cause, even if a yellow was a harsh call.
Luther Burrell initially shored up the defence before being beaten by an inside step – again – and to be frank, couldn't catch a cold at times. Danny Cipriani looked promising and full of ideas when he was on, whilst the big success story was probably Kieran 'the Fridge' Brookes, who rampaged around the field to great effect and shored up the scrum.