AUCKLAND, NZ – Every team is after the complete 80 minute performance, but the All Blacks decided that was too much work for a June test and put in a complete 40 minute effort against a stunned English side in the first half of their match in Hamilton, with the game effectively over at the halftime whistle. A couple of All Blacks under a bit of scrutiny mid-week really stood up, one show-pony English winger went completely MIA and we all experienced familiar frustrations over the referee’s interpretation of the scrum law. But, at the end of the day, a 23 point win over the best English side available will satisfy even the most cynical New Zealander (believe me, there are a lot) even though there’s a lot to work on if the All Blacks are to have a season like last year.
All Blacks 36 (Julian Savea 3, Aaron Smith 2 tries; Aaron Cruden 3 con, pen, Beauden Barrett con) England 13 (Marland Yarde try, Freddie Burns con, 2 pen)
Waikato Stadium was packed to the rafters for this match, with just under 26,000 in attendance. The rain was coming down as the All Blacks ripped into a slower and more intense version of Kapa O Pango, led by hometown boy Liam Messam. This methodical rendition was a real sign of things to come as the All Blacks completely dominated the first half, maintaining possession at will and working an effective set piece. The first try came off a line out drive and back line move that went slightly wrong, however Aaron Smith gathered up the mistake and fed Ben Smith, who linked up with an unmarked Julian Savea to cross after three minutes. Freddie Burns hit back with a penalty soon after but after eight minutes under-fire first five Aaron Cruden showed why the selectors had faith in him during the week by scooting through a big gap in the English midfield to feed Savea again. The big winger didn’t have the easiest finish, having to pick up a pass off his feet and cut back in, but made it look very easy. By now people around NZ were starting to get that feeling were you can relax back into your couches or head to the bar for another round knowing that this one was in the bag. Savea was denied a natural hat trick later in the half when a Ben Smith pass was correctly judged to have gone forward, but by now the question of whether his marker Chris Ashton had even made it to the ground was being asked, as Savea had been operating essentially at will for the entire game so far.
Another All Black under the spotlight during the week, winger Cory Jane, then showed that form may be temporary but class is permanent by busting down the left and feeding inside to Aaron Smith, who dived over in the corner. Not long after Smith got a double to go along with Savea’s as Ben Smith broke the line and fed back inside to his halfback. By now it was 29-6 to the home side and any thoughts of this game being a meaningful contest had gone out the door. This was the All Black side that’d been missing for the entire 80 minutes in Auckland and around about 60 in Dunedin.
To England’s credit, however, they recovered from the shellshock the All Blacks inflicted on them and returned from halftime with a far more positive attitude. They were helped by a number of early changes the All Blacks made, including Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina coming into the front row. This meant the previously stable All Black scrum started getting pinged repeatedly by referee Jerome Garces, which let the English piggyback downfield and gain the territory they had never seen in the first half. Particularly impressive was wing Marland Yarde, who threw himself into the line at every opportunity and was well rewarded with a try, his second of the series.
England probably had the better of the second half, but the damage had very much been done. The All Blacks had some good patches but were frustrated by final pass options and penalties. Finally, on the last play of the game, Jane shoved his way past some very tired defenders to set up Savea for his third try of the night.
The All Blacks in the first half were a revelation, playing rugby that’d match the best of their efforts last season.The scrum was immovable, the line out pinpoint and even when the back line moves broke down they still could turn them into tries. Julian Savea benefitted from all of this down the left hand side, playing the role of the traditional finisher, while on the right Cory Jane was a distributor, setting up two tries. Dane Coles had probably his best test yet in the starting hooker jersey and his absence was notable in the second half as the set piece went awry. Malakai Fekitoa looked at home in his first start at centre and his initial bust set up Aaron Smith’s first try. One the brightest spots was the welcome return of Kieran Read, who hasn’t played in six weeks and looked like he hasn’t missed a step at all with a polished 40 minute effort. The only negative was probably the performance of the bench, who added little and disrupted the cohesion that’d made the first half so memorable.
For England it was a very disappointing end to an otherwise promising tour. Their best lineup from the previous two tests (yes, I’m counting Freddie Burns because he played far better than Owen Farrell) didn’t fire a shot until it was way too late and completely wasted an opportunity to make a statement against the best side in the world. In a tale of two wingers, Marland Yarde underlined the fact that he’s been the form player on this tour with a mountain of work. On the other side, Chris Ashton may as well have been in the crowd drinking beer for all the good he did. Savea was UNTOUCHED for his hat trick, so the Tony Underwood Award for worst defensive effort by an Englishman on an All Black is safely Ashton’s for the time being. In the pack Chris Robshaw battled hard and showed that he is definitely the right leader for this side going forward. Other than that England were comprehensively blown off the park by the All Blacks and won’t be able to salvage anything useful from this test.
Man of the Match: A lot to choose from in the All Blacks, however given the criticism they endured during the week and how they responded it’s a joint award to Cory Jane and Aaron Cruden. Both men were being told they were finished and came up with match-turning efforts that set up the tries that got the result the All Blacks were after.
Moment of the Match: You know things are going right when your back line move fails miserably and you still score a cracking try. Julian Savea’s first strike was a fore bearer of things to come.
Idiot of the Match: I’ve already given Chris Ashton enough stick for a horrible performance so far, so…nah, I’m still going to give him this award. Especially after possibly the most awful clearing kick seen in a test match.
So, what have we learned from this series? Probably that the All Blacks need a couple of games to warm up, will need to play for a full 80 minutes against the Wallabies if they want the all time consecutive test victory record and will rely heavily on Julian Savea for the next couple of seasons at least. England will look back on this as a missed opportunity all around, they had a test slip through their fingers in Auckland, had a firm grasp on another that got violently taken from them in Dunedin and never even looked close in Hamilton. Most of the players that performed well are known to the coaching staff, so no one new has really staked a claim. We’ll have a better idea of where they are at in regards to the RWC after the next edition of the Six Nations.
Meanwhile, over in South Africa the Springboks had an absolutely classic match against Wales and the Wallabies made short work of France in Sydney. The All Blacks would do well to have a look at the footage of both of those tests and start formulating a plan of how they will emerge victorious in their true tests of 2014.
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