Thursday, 13 November 2014

Autumn International Review - England 21 - 24 New Zealand

That feeling of déjà vous is a weird one.  I often get it at random moments, such as when I’m chatting to someone in the pub or in a business meeting where I should probably be paying attention instead of wondering if that feeling is just my mind playing tricks on me, or if it’s because I’ve lived my life before and this is just a re-run.  Anyway, all that is far too deep for a rugby blog, but I digress – the point I’m making is, has anyone else had a sense of déjà vous with the last 4 tests between England and the All Blacks?

Let’s face the facts, before this Saturday, what were the stats?  Well, the main ones were three games, and three losses.  But it’s the story behind the three which really get a bit tedious – in each game within the summer series (and the Autumn International before, for that matter), even the third test, England played bravely and, in parts, with real promise, before ultimately making one (or multiple c*ck ups) which the All Blacks ruthlessly exploited.  And scored plenty of tries.  England are not a bad side, but they cannot afford to miss chances nor hand opportunities to world’s best side (they can create plenty of their own).  The only opportunity to beat the All Blacks comes from building a lead early on – not through getting involved in an arm-wrestle or by playing catch up.

England, though, were anything but slow out of the blocks at Twickenham on Saturday.  In fact, Johnny May was the polar opposite when, in the third minute, he collected a floated pass from Brad Barritt in the midfield 50 metres out.  From there, the Gloucester flyer scorched around Conrad Smith – who had pressed too early and found himself exposed – before burning Israel Dagg on the outside.  Within a 5 metre channel.  It was a try to silence his critics and his first in an England shirt and, even if he never scores again, it will be remembered as one of the great individual tries against the All Blacks.  Owen Farrell missed the conversion, but England had the near-perfect start.

It could have been even better for England, with Danny Care’s smart kick bouncing up perfectly for May, who did brilliantly to gather, but the Gloucester man didn’t see or hear Farrell racing up on the inside with a free-run in, and the move died out.  Further opportunities were to slip through their fingers in the next five minutes too, as exceptional defence from the likes of Jerome Kaino and Sam Whitelock prevented a maul from crashing over, and then Mike Brown spilt a glorious pass from Kyle Eastmond when he looked odds-on to score in the corner.

As the press and any England player will spout off brainlessly, you have to take your chances against the All Blacks, otherwise you pay for it in the end.  And that’s exactly what happened in the 14th minute, as Jerome Kaino found himself in space on the right during the first meaningful Kiwi attack, and the blindside barged his way between Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley before being hauled down just short.  But with England going backwards, there was only going to be one outcome, and Aaron Cruden wriggled his way past Dave Wilson to score – although replays suggested that he may have been stopped short, with the hand of Hartley possibly denying him.  Referee Nigel Owens was happy though and, after Cruden had missed the extras, the score sat at 5 apiece.

England did bounce back admirably though, with Farrell striking two penalties within 5 minutes after that rarest of things, a Richie McCaw infringement, and a collapsed maul.  England’s pack, led by the omnipresent Chris Robshaw and the ultra-physical Dave Attwood, getting on top of the All Blacks by and large in the loose, but they were dealt a blow when Courtney Lawes was forced off the field a nasty head injury – a blow that was compounded after Cruden had added three points following a clumsy challenge from Hartley.

England then spent the next 10 minutes defending as the All Blacks’ kicking game started to click into gear, but the men in white, through the likes of Brad Barritt and, surprisingly, Johnny May, did well to defend the wide channels and scramble back when the visitors got any go forward – as they did when Williams burst through, before trying one offload too many.  England were looking decent themselves – although not as slick – and, after Farrell had missed an attempted drop goal, he added a penalty for another McCaw indiscretion, but not before Cruden had added three himself after Owens had harshly ruled that Robshaw was off his feet when stealing the ball in a ruck.  It brought an intriguing – although perhaps not overly enthralling – first half to an end, with England leading 14 – 11.

It had been a first half in which England could rue some key, missed opportunities, but it was the All Blacks chance to miss one straight after the restart, as Cruden hooked a penalty following a brainless infringement from Wilson.  His kick hit the post, allowing Attwood to gallop superbly out of danger, before the England pack ground their way upfield in a gloriously traditional display of mauling.  But, as the heavens began to open, that was as good as it got for England, as the World Champions’ forwards sprung into action.  With runner after runner hitting the inside shoulder, Owen Franks burst through a gap in midfield and, with England’s defence in full disarray, Dagg exploited the blindside and put McCaw over for a brutally clinical try. 

Cruden missed the kick, but the stage for the rest of the half had been set.   England, though were starting to shoot themselves in the foot – Farrell was missing with his touch finders and Care, who had been very decent in the first half was missing the mark time and again with his box kicks, either going too far for his chasers and allowing Julian Savea and his mates to run it back, or not going far enough and keeping the pressure on his teammates.  A charge-down on Kyle Eastmond then put the hosts under all sorts of pressure, and nearly led to a try as Care rolled the ball onto the line at the back of the ruck, almost allowing Sam Whitelock to dive over for a smart score.

The tryline scrap should have actually produced a net result in England’s favour, as Dane Cole was sent to sin bin for lashing a boot out at Dylan Hartley after the England hooker pulled on the Kiwi’s shirt.  Although it’s frustrating to have your shirt pulled, you can’t kick an opponent, so I think a yellow card was fair enough – but it made no difference, as England simply couldn’t get out of their half, due to poor kicking, or get their hands on the ball, thanks to superb game management by the All Black pack.

Indeed, it was the All Blacks who taught their youthful hosts the lesson in wet weather management as the rain came driving in from the side like a graduate from the McCaw school of rucking.  Substitute Beauden Barrett missed one easy kick but nailed another as the Kiwi pack laid siege to the England line – with 14 men – before scoring when back to the full complement.  And it was a try for the purists, the pack grinding their way through a remarkable 22 phases in torrential rain from 40 metres out to touch down – it may not have been an 80 metre scorcher, but it was a beautiful try in its own way, and Charlie Faumuina was the man to be credited with the final touch.  Barrett missed another easy kick, but with the score at 24 – 14, the All Blacks had scored 13 unanswered points, and the game was effectively over. 

England fought back bravely, but they were never going to pull a miracle out the bag with 7 minutes left.  The pack – bolstered by the introductions of Matt Mullan and Kieran Brookes – won a penalty try from a scrum to make the score 24 – 21 with 30 seconds to go, but the ball just wouldn’t go to hand in the wet conditions and the game was over.

So same old story.  The All Blacks undoubtedly deserved their win, but – despite being an intriguing test match – it was all too predictable.  England showed glimmers of hope, but the All Blacks had the ruthlessness where it mattered, taking each opportunity presented to them.  But England didn’t need to present them with those opportunities – if England had kicked with greater precision in the second half, could it have been a different story?  But isn’t that just the same old story.

England Player Ratings

Mike Brown – 6 – Solid at the back but doesn’t seem to be beating the first man as much anymore.  Could have taken the pass for the try that never was, as well.

Semesa Rokodoguni – 6 – Did nothing wrong on debut, but never got an opportunity to shine with the ball in hand.  Kept Savea quiet though, which is no mean feat.

Brad Barritt – 7 – Despite his media protestations, he is in the side for defence rather than attack.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do what he does bloody well, and his pass gave May just the metre of space he needed in the opening 3 minutes.

Kyle Eastmond – 7 – Dealt with the not unsizeable Sonny Bill well and added some decent distribution from the 12 slot.  Lucky that a charge-down didn’t lead to a try though.

Jonny May – 8 – Scored a brilliant try which will have shut his doubters up, and defended valiantly throughout  as well.  Shame he didn’t see more of the ball after his try.

Owen Farrell – 6 – Good goalkicking and total commitment as always, but his kicking from hand wasn’t great in the second period.

Danny Care – 5 – Started well with the pack on the front foot, but his kicking in the second half was nothing short of abysmal and helped pile the pressure onto his team mates.

Joe Marler – 6 – A decent scrummaging effort but he wasn’t as effective as he usually is around the park.

Dylan Hartley – 7 – Superb in the set piece and a good bit of winding-up of Dane Coles for his card, but his missed tackle on Jerome Kaino proved costly.

Dave Wilson – 6 – Part of a solid scrummaging display but was under pressure towards the end.  A couple of handling mistakes, too.

Dave Attwood – 8 – Took on the role of enforcer admirably.  Flew into the All Blacks with relish and did not take a step backwards.  He’s made a real claim for a starting spot now, even when Launchbury, Parling and Slater all return.

Courtney Lawes – 5 – Not on the field long enough to have a really positive influence, although the early signs were encouraging until he missed a vital tackle in the build up to Cruden’s score.

Tom Wood – 6 – A bit disappointing, to be honest.  He can be such a force at the breakdown but he didn’t seem to make any in-roads into All Blacks’ possession, and wasn’t seen on the carry a lot either.

Chris Robshaw – 7 – Against any other 7 in the world, he would have come out on top.  Carried and tackled well, and finished with two turnovers – but neither at a crucial moment, like McCaw.

Billy Vunipola – 7 – Always draws in defenders but, every now and again, I’d like to see him in a wider channel and see if he can do some damage out there.  Still, had some damaging runs.

Subs – 7 – All the substitutes brought something positive to England’s game.  George Kruis put himself about and certainly wasn’t overawed by the occasion, whilst Keiran Brookes dominated the scrum.  Ben Youngs’ kicking was certainly improving although his passing was a little shakey in torrential conditions.


All Blacks Player Ratings

Israel Dagg – 6 – Will not enjoy the video of him being burned on the outside – possibly for the first time – but was still a threat in attack.  Always dangerous.

Ben Smith - 6 – Not at his most prominent but worked his socks off in defence and was solid under the high ball.

Conrad Smith – 5 – Got caught out for Jonny May’s first try and was then just uncharacteristically not really at the races.  He had few chances in attack, to be fair.

Sonny Bill Williams – 6 – A solid, but unspectacular return to the big time for SBW.  A couple of big hits were nice for the cameras, as were a couple of offloads, but he struggled to have an influence on the game and was well shackled by his diminutive opposite number.

Julian Savea – 7 – Didn’t score against England, for once.  But he still exuded menace with each touch of the ball and sat Rokodugini down more than once.

Aaron Cruden – 7 – Took his try (if it was a try) very well and controlled proceedings superbly once his pack took control.  Those misses in front of goal could be costly in another game, however.

Aaron Smith – 7 – He was calm and unflustered, exactly what you need from a scrum half when you’re playing in the West London monsoon.

Wyatt Crockett – 7 – Got the squeeze on Davey Wilson a couple of times and contributed superbly at rucktime in the big forward effort in the third quarter.

Dane Coles – 5 – If England had been ruthless, that yellow card could have been very costly.  I get that being held back is annoying, but lashing out with his foot almost erased all the good work he’d done at the set-piece and in the loose.

Owen Franks – 6 – Occasionally looked a bit ropey in the scrum but his smart line and surge through the middle helped set up the All Blacks’ crucial second score.

Brodie Retallick – 6 – Only got a half but was his usual busy self, although he didn’t dominate the loose as we’ve come to expect.

Sam Whitelock – 8 – Perhaps sick of his fellow lock getting all the plaudits of late, the veteran put in a brooding, powerful display.  A key part of the pack’s second half resurgence, he was unlucky not to sneak in for a cheeky try.

Jerome Kaino – 8 – Much more like it from the big flanker.  Big run set up the All Blacks’ first and from then on he was probably the most physical man on the park – England struggled to deal with him in the loose.

Richie McCaw – 9 – Just kept getting better and better throughout the game.  Has the knack of intervening at crucial times, whether it’s with tries or turnovers.  A vintage display, making full use of his ‘private gate’ at rucktime – man of the match.

Keiran Read – 7 – Not quite at his free flowing best but his awareness and versatility always had the England defence nervous.

Subs – 6 – Beauden Barrett had a difficult time with the boot and didn’t impress, but Ryan Crotty was an energising presence in the midfield and Charlie Faumauina worked his socks off in the loose, although he – and the rest of the front row subs – were marmalised in the scrum late on.

And in the other weekend’s games?

Italy 24 – 13 Samoa: Italy picked up an impressive win over a decent Samoa side in difficult conditions, with backrow duo Simone Favaro and Sergio Parisse touching down after Jack Lam had given the visitors the lead.

Wales 28 – 33 Australia:  It was just the same old story for Wales in a thrilling game at the Millennium stadium.  From a winning position, brought about by a penalty try and scores from Rhys Webb, Alex Cuthbert and Alun Wyn Jones, Wales were outsmarted by their opponents, going down thanks to tries from Israel Folau (2) and Tevita Kuridrani.  It’s happened too many times to be bad luck now.

France 40 – 15 Fiji:  Teddy Thomas scored a hat-trick on debut as the French cut loose in the second half to down the valiant Fijians.  Two further scores from Pascal Pape and Wesley Fofana added gloss to the score, but Fiji were always dangerous and scored two great tries of their own through Alipate Ratini and Tomoci Nagusa.

Ireland 29 – 15 South Africa:  A magnificently physical display helped an under-power Irish side dismantle the much fancied Springboks in Dublin.  The Springboks were never really in the game, despite a pushover score from Marcel Coetzee and a consolation try from JP Pietersen, with Johnny Sexton in punishing form with the boot and Rhys Ruddock and Tommy Bowe touching down for 5-pointers.

Scotland 41 – 31 Argentina:  A dynamic and enterprising Scotland performance lit up Murrayfield despite going behind to an early score from Javier Ortega Desio.  The hosts ran in 5 tries with touch downs from the Gray brothers (Richie and Jonny), Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, before the visitors mounted a late comeback with a penalty try and a brace from substitute Tomas Cubelli.

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