It’s been a pretty good week for Eddie Jones and England rugby. Widely expected to be humiliated by the All Blacks, the number one ranked team in the world, England performed admirably and so nearly pulled off a shock victory. Honour and respectability in defeat, not what the coach really wants but, in the circumstances, not bad and an encouraging afternoon at HQ.
Indeed in the final reckoning, England could so nearly have won. Enough column inches, podcasts and reviews have debated whether he was or was not offside but ultimately the TMO deemed Courtney Lawes’ toe nails to be slightly past the back foot of the England ruck so there is little point adding to the discussion here, suffice to say that you win some you lose some.
Last week’s final second and arguably high tackle by Owen Farrell could so easily have been punished which would more than likely have resulted in a defeat to the Boks. To his credit, Eddie was reasonably phlegmatic about it all post match but whether he would have had a similar view of it had been the semi final of the Rugby World Cup is another matter.
What is not in doubt is the mesmerising way that Sam Underhill turned Beauden Barrett inside out on his way to the try line in the corner to send Twickenham into raptures, before the TMO intervened. Underhill was a real livewire throughout and has put himself into serious contention for a starting birth in Eddie’s 1st XV. His back row colleagues Mark Wilson and Brad Shields also stepped up to the plate as indeed did all the forwards, Maro Itoje particularly to the fore. Maro’s mojo appears to be back.
England were quickly out of the blocks in Twickenham’s teeming torrential rain and were 15-0 to the good after 25 minutes in a remarkable start, playing arguably the best rugby that they have done for years. As if on cue, ‘naughty’ maverick Chris Ashton scored in the opening minutes, a result of some excellent vision from Ben Youngs, and the much maligned co-captain Dylan Hartley was the beneficiary of an exemplary lineout catch and drive, where Uncle Tom Cobley and all seemed to help push him over the line.
But. There has to be a but for England lost. If New Zealand were ahead to such a degree on their own turf you can bet your bottom dollar that they would not have lost the match. So why did England ?
Firstly, the loss of Dylan Hartley. Surprising yes, based on recent evidence, but here he was talismanic and led from the front both in the loose and with his line out throwing. By all accounts injury led to his half time departure and unfortunately Jamie George, for once, seemed half the man. The loss of five line outs on the English throw once George was at the helm told its own story.
Secondly, turning down kickable shots at goal. Hindsight is wonderful as we all know and had Farrell pointed to the posts rather than taking chances with line outs in the corner, his team could be celebrating a second victory in two weeks. The ethos of the modern game seems to be slightly obsessed with going for the try whatever the circumstances, taking the chance sometimes against sound logic to the contrary. Caught up in the moment perhaps, adrenalin fuelled maybe? Farrell will learn.
In a low scoring tight match in the torrential rain, points mean prizes. Australia were arguably even more fallible in their match against Wales only a couple of hours later. International rugby is not about bonus points or scoring tries or playing pretty rugby, it is about winning.
Thirdly, not setting up the drop goal for replacement George Ford or Farrell in the final moves of the match. It was criminal. Of all the teams not to do this too, especially after England had won the World Cup in 2003 based on this very play. The current team might be much younger but none of them will have forgotten Jonny Wilkinson dropping that goal in similar circumstances. You would have thought that this play would have been ingrained in every English rugby players psyche. Alas it is clearly not and another chance of victory went begging. They will learn.
Fourthly and finally, the quality of the opposition. The All Blacks are not the best team in the world for nothing. They simply will not lie down. The fought back with power and pace and even though the horrible conditions certainly limited their ability to play their all action 15 man game, they sniffed out the points.
Brodie Retallick quite literally rose to the challenge once more, stealing line outs and proving why he is arguably the best second row forward in the world. They kicked their points when on offer, Barrett even dropped a goal for goodness sake, his first ever in 71 test appearances.
Sometimes a team just has to play the match and the conditions and forget their usual attacking philosophies. Be pragmatic, play the percentage game. New Zealand realised that England were not going to be a pushover, so took the sensible options and ultimately those decisions paid off. 15-16, thank you very much. They were mightily pleased and relieved to get that one over the line.
So for England, disappointment but pride. Eddie and his charges would appear to be back on track and for all the criticism that they have collectively received, Barbour clad Twickenham man will once again but extoling the merits of his team and eulogising about their chances of winning the World Cup in Japan next year. That may be a little fanciful right now but this was certainly a big step in the right direction.
To read my thoughts on week one, the South Africa match, click here.