New Zealand 28 England 27: Three talking points
New Zealand 28 England 27: Three talking points as the Red Rose go down fighting in the second Test
All Blacks master class
Last week, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen said the team he put out were only at 60-70% of what they can do after seven months without a Test match. He hasn’t gave an indication of where they were at after today’s match, but the third quarter was close to the All Blacks at their best as they produced a master class worthy of blowing away any opposition. For all the talk from England before the game that the All Blacks weren’t unbeatable, there were early signs that maybe, just maybe, they were on to something as they built a 10-0 lead. Even captain Richie McCaw looked out of sorts as penalties were coughed up and tackles missed—it was a largely disappointing first half for the world champions, perhaps even worse than the 80 minutes at Eden Park: handling errors a plenty and aimless kicking particularly damaging. New Zealand have lost just once under Steve Hansen, that famous England win in November 2012, but their unbeaten run now stretches back 16 games and Hansen still has a 90%+ winning percentage. The second half saw almost a different 15 to that which graced the field in the first half: the set-piece was better, collision area better, forwards gave the backs a platform which they hadn’t done in the first game and a half. The third quarter was the All Blacks at their creative and try-scoring best, the inspiration surely from that pivotal moment just before the break as England missed a glorious opportunity to score a second try and it ended eventually with Aaron Cruden kicking a penalty. Some stern words in the dressing room at half-time may have had something to do with it as well.
England’s wasted chances
There may have been some positives in attack for England, but there are problems in defence and Stuart Lancaster still doesn’t know his best side or, he does, but doesn’t put it out. With the tryline beckoning at the end of the first half, Leicester Tigers centre Manu Tuilagi ran from 60 metres into the New Zealand 22 before being caught and hauled down by Highlanders full-back Ben Smith on his home ground playing 15 for the All Blacks for just a second time. Undoubtedly, it was the turning point as Smith tackled a man bigger than he, got up and won the ball legally. He may be a wrecking ball in midfield, but Tuilagi’s club team-mate Niki Goneva probably would have scored that. Likewise Saracens star winger Chris Ashton, who came off the bench in the second half, would have had the pace to finish it off or even Jonny May—either way, anyone who is a natural winger. Lancaster’s gamble—which he claimed wasn’t a gamble because Tuilagi had played on the wing at age-grade level—didn’t pay off against the world’s best rugby side. For much of the match, Tuilagi was anonymous on the right flank while London Irish wing Marland Yarde got came off his left wing at will to get involved in play. With England facing Super Rugby franchise Crusaders in midweek before the final Test in Hamilton next weekend, Lancaster has to go back to the drawing board. He now has the chance to experiment, if that’s what he wants to do, but a better plan would be to put out his best side—something he hadn’t done for the second Test with Dylan Harley, Billy Vunipola and Courtney Lawes only coming on in the second half and unable to make an impact—to really see what this current crop of England stars are capable of.
Standard bearers still the best
England may feel that they left another win on the field, but they had no answer when the All Blacks went through the gears as they did in the 30 minutes at the start of the second half. The power, pace and angles produced by the New Zealand backs were of the highest calibre. Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Corey Jane and Aaron Smith all willing runners and tacklers to the point that England eventually missed 35 tackles—twice as many as the All Blacks. Even Cruden had an influential hand before being axed for Beauden Barrett. There may still be 16 months before the Rugby World Cup in England, but this All Blacks squad still has plenty to offer, even if a few of them are in their 30s. To suggest they are past it is nothing short of disrespect. Coming to the end of a sabbatical and recovering from ankle surgery since New Zealand played England last autumn, Dan Carter will be back pulling the strings when New Zealand compete in the Rugby Championship later this year while Ben Smith could even displace Israel Dagg at full-back, certainly for the third Test if not beyond. England may have a lot of young, talented players, but nothing can make up for experience on the biggest of international stages. New Zealand have that in abundance, will be defending champions with plenty of time to blood their own fresh talent from Super Rugby and, perhaps more importantly, they continue to set the bar higher than any other nation. Twice England failed to take their chances and twice they were done by a team in short bursts, not unlike their match against France in the Six Nations earlier this year which ultimately cost them the Grand Slam. As Ireland discovered last autumn, writing off an All Blacks side will only lead to trouble.