England’s ambition of issuing a statement of intent ahead of next year’s World Cup was crushed by a losing start to the QBE Series that saw New Zealand depart Twickenham narrow 24-21 winners.
The game slipped from the hosts’ hands after the All Blacks dominated the second half to extend their mastery of the fixture to five successive victories.
While the pre-match attention focused on the debut of serving British Army solider Semesa Rokoduguni, it was his fellow wing Jonny May who brought Twickenham to its feet with a stunning solo try.
May, the fastest player in England’s squad, switched on the afterburners to sprint around Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg as England made a dream start to the first of their autumn internationals.
New Zealand’s response through Aaron Cruden was shrouded in controversy as the fly-half did not appear to ground the ball properly and England were able to reflect on a strong first half they finished 14-11 ahead. But after the interval they were rarely able to escape their half and spent long spells defending waves of All Blacks attacks that were hampered by the driving rain.
Missing seven British and Irish Lions to injury, Stuart Lancaster’s men showed resolve and a refusal to concede defeat until the final whistle was rewarded with a penalty try with seconds remaining.
New Zealand arrived heavy favourites but looked anything but as England raced into the lead after just three minutes. Two missed passes from a line-out created half an opening for May and the lightening-fast Gloucester wing seized his chance by racing around Smith and Dagg to cross in the left corner.
England’s brilliant start continued with May threatening a second try until Dagg intervened and number eight Billy Vunipola being stopped just short of the line on two occasions.
The All Blacks were rattled and but for better hands from Mike Brown their line would have been breached again as Kyle Eastmond sought to exploit an overlap.
By the 10th minute they had composed themselves and ran in a controversial try through Cruden, made possible by Kieran Read’s bullet pass to lock Sam Whitelock.
Cruden appeared to fall short and spill the ball forward before grounding it, but referee Nigel Owens awarded the score immediately instead of referring it to the TMO and replays on the big screen were met with boos.
Farrell landed three penalties for an interval lead trimmed to 14-11 by a Cruden three-pointer.
The advantage lasted only five minutes of the second half when New Zealand expertly exploited a crumbling defence.
Prop Owen Franks punched a hole in midfield before the ball was spun left, with Dagg sending Richie McCaw over for the simplest of tries.
A tight encounter made way for a dominant third quarter from New Zealand, who began to find space with regularity.
It was only a matter of time until England’s line cracked again and it was substitute Charlie Faumuina who drove over after waves of attacks, although England had the final say when Owens gave a penalty try after the All Blacks had pulled down a maul.
England find themselves in a very fortunate position at the moment; if they win at home for the next twelve months, they are going to be world champions. The only side this group of players has not beaten is South Africa, and they will have the chance to change that when they meet in the second November series.
First up, they play a New Zealand side this Saturday heading into the match with a number of injury concerns.
It had been suggested that Dan Carter – the player who has been the most damaging for England in recent years – and Ma Nonu – returning from a broken arm but always a powerful presence in midfield – could feature for New Zealand; the absence of both from the matchday squad will be music to English ears.
But this is New Zealand we are talking about – their most dangerous asset is unquestionably the ability to close out games. Remember against Ireland last November, against South Africa and against Australia a few weeks ago? They score these tries at the most crucial moments of a game.
It teaches you a lesson and that it to play for 80 minutes. New Zealand set you up always. After 50 minutes they’ll wear you down, and then come at you for the last 30. It’s definitely a message for England – they will need to be fitter than New Zealand going into the World Cup next year.
This Saturday, the scrum will be a vital battleground. The Kiwis’ scrum was very good against Australia but the Aussie’s still did pretty well – England will need to do better.
— Austin Healey (@IamAustinHealey) October 18, 2014
The midfield is going to be a really interesting situation, too. Lawrence Dallaglio recently wrote in one of his columns that there’s only going to be six guys who we can see actually starting the first game at the World Cup if everyone’s fit. There are loads of positions up for grabs so the November series is the tight time to really lay down a marker if you want to wear that white jersey at next year’s World Cup.
Stuart Lancaster sprung a slight surprise by omitting Billy Twelvetrees – a player who he had seemed to love despite patchy recent form – while there was better news for Kyle Eastmond. I’m looking forward to seeing Eastmond play; he’s been magnificent for Bath this year and looks really comfortable on the ball.
It is, however, unfortunately that the management haven’t picked David Strettle or Chris Ashton. The wing situation for England is really bizarre. Jack Nowell is a good rugby player but has scored no tries in 15 games, and then you look at a player look Chris Ashton with 24 in 37 games. It’s a great strike rate for Ashton, and Strettle’s record is not far behind. This is what your wingers are meant to do.
Yes there are areas of Ashton’s game that are poor, but he’s gone back and worked on them. He still struggles aerially and as a right winger, you’ve got to be very good at chasing box kicks or receiving then – admittedly he’s not very good at that. But he’s the best guy at putting pressure on opponents. If you put a kick deep into your opponents half, he chases it and turns it into a great opportunity. Those 15/20 yards that he gains England are invaluable in Test match rugby and that’s why I would have picked him. Defensively he’s strong; he’s a nuisance, a pain to play against. He’s exactly what you want on your team.
Stuart Lancaster’s new contract came at the right time. It’s good to give the England coaches security but I think after this World Cup, Graham Rowntree, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt will all be approached by big clubs who’ll offer them bigger money. That can be very difficult but it’s a profession. I know they all love working together, but I would say to Lancaster that over the next six years, it would be good to bring some new ideas in. Keep that group refreshed, perhaps with coaches coming in.
For now, England need a big series to help build for next year’s World Cup; facing challenging opponents can only aid preparation for 2015 and New Zealand are always guaranteed to be just that.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) cannot afford to waste any time as they attempt to recover their identity in the wake of head coach Ewen McKenzie’s decision to quit. Events of the past two weeks, and revelations about McKenzie’s relationship with Di Patston, had made his position untenable.
Suspicions surrounding exactly how much he knew about the text messages sent by Kurtley Beale had eroded whatever trust he had managed to build within the squad since taking the reins. Yet, that is not to say the current crisis is Patston’s fault.
Whatever her role within the squad she was merely trying to get on with a job she had been hired to do, and it is unfair that the demise of Australian rugby is being attributed to her. After all, the squad was not exactly a collection of choirboys before she and McKenzie arrived.
Moreover, Patston’s willingness to take on extra responsibility fitted perfectly with CEO Bill Pulver’s age of austerity at the ARU.
That approach has left the Wallabies without the sort of basic structures that most major nations take for granted. And having failed to fully back his coach, Pulver should carry his share of the blame for the current mess.
His negligence allowed the current malaise to develop beneath him but he will need to act swiftly and decisively if the image of Australian rugby is to improve quickly.
The squad depart for their tour of Europe on Friday, meaning time is a commodity in short supply as Pulver sets about identifying McKenzie’s successor. With such a tight timeframe in place, it would seem that Jake White, the man who led South Africa to the 2007 World Cup, is in pole position to land the role on a short-term basis.
Pulver could do a lot worse. White has a proven track record in international rugby, worked with several of the squad while at the Brumbies, and would be available having left Sharks last month.
New South Wales Waratahs coach Michael Cheika remains Pulver’s long-term first-choice it is thought, but time may well dictate that White comes in on an interim basis for the autumn at least.
Cheika would certainly be a popular appointment, providing some positive PR at a time when the Wallabies need their nation to get behind them. His Waratahs side provided Australia with a moment to be truly proud of this year, winning the Super Rugby title, and many of those players are integral to Wallabies hopes too.
Michael Hooper is one such example, and one of few people to come out of the last fortnight with his reputation enhanced. The young Australia skipper is the sort of talismanic talent that teams are built around, and his relationship with Cheika could prove central to a Wallabies revival.
Sadly for Pulver, while the former Leinster coach is keen on leading his country at some stage, he is believed to have reservations about the state of the current set-up. The problems go deeper than who is the head coach. There are funding issues, structural problems and a squad that still contains several players with a propensity to do stupid things away from the pitch.
Yet, there is also still plenty of quality. They highlighted as much as they ran the best team in the world extremely close on Saturday in a game they should have won.
The onus is now on Pulver to give Hooper and his players a coach they deserve.