AUCKLAND, NZ: A couple of weeks ago I got everyone fired up when I wrote a column slamming England for not bringing a first choice team for the first test. Given the vast difference in quality of this weekend’s game from the last, I’m feeling pretty justified right now. The second test was, while far from being perfect, a massive step up in quality and entertainment. Even though the one-point margin isn’t actually indicative of what really went on, this was a true heavyweight contest and was well worth watching.
All Blacks 28 (Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Ma’a Nonu tries, Aaron Cruden 3 pen, 2 con) England 27 (Marland Yarde, Mike Brown, Chris Ashton tries, Owen Farrell 2 pen, 3 con)
At the wonderfully modern Forsyth Barr Stadium in NZ’s southern-most test venue Dunedin, the match kicked off in front of a packed house. However, the ref didn’t wait long to get on his whistle again, awarding the English two penalties inside the first minute and a half, the second turned into the first points by Owen Farrell. The All Blacks were looking like they’d forgotten how to play as the English took control of the next 15 minutes, resulting in the first try to winger Marland Yarde. After a nice maul up field halfback Danny Care popped a well timed pass to Yarde who beat an uncharacteristically woeful attempt at a tackle by Richie McCaw. After a bit more to and fro, the All Blacks got on the board through the boot of Aaron Cruden, who added another penalty shortly after.
Then came one of the first big moments of the match. With the All Blacks hot on attack, a very out-of-sorts Cory Jane dropped a pass five metres out from the English line, the ball was scooped up by Manu Tuilagi, who was in a much-talked-about positional change on the wing. He had 90 metres of open country in front of him and seemed destined to score, but was gunned down just over the All Black 22 by Ben Smith. Smith then found the strength to get to his feet and turn the ball over, defusing the English threat and heading into halftime down 10-6.
Whatever was said at halftime in the All Black changing room had the desired effect as a completely different team emerged in the second half and began methodically dismantling England across the park. Suddenly, passes stuck, line breaks started appearing and the crowd got back behind the team that’d bumbled their way through the first 40 minutes. Cruden ghosted on the outside edge of the English right and fed Savea, who unselfishly passed to Ben Smith for an easy finish under the posts. Not long after Savea himself was on the end of a set of excellent passes to cross on the right side again, before Ma’a Nonu showed what a powerful force he is when he busted his way over on the right hand side after some good lead up work by Conrad Smith.
Facing a seemingly insurmountable lead the English needed a bit of luck and got it when Mike Brown went across the line and appeared to be held up, however the ref and TMO bafflingly conspired to come to the conclusion that the lack of evidence of anything meant the only outcome was to award a try. That closed the gap down to eight points and the English kept trying, scoring a garbage-time try to Chris Ashton to make the scoreline far more dramatic than it really should have been.
A big turnaround in attitude from the week before in the All Black side meant the accuracy and ruthlessness missing in the previous game returned, albeit after halftime. This slow start will be another work-on for next week as it is feeling very much like the 2014 All Blacks need a few games for everything to click into place. However, once they got going the results were spectacular. The scrum held it’s own without being too dominant and the line out was perfect. The performances of a few key players were outstanding, most notably Ben Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Julian Savea. Savea’s presence made a great deal of difference as it gave the All Blacks a weapon out wide they used often and to great effect. On the other side of the coin a couple of generally consistent All Blacks had poor games, Aaron Smith labored at halfback while Cory Jane had a nightmare on the right wing. His normally reliable hands had somehow been replaced by feet and one crucial drop almost led to Tuilagi scoring at the other end.
England were sensational for the opening 20 minutes, dominating the proceedings and were well rewarded with Yarde’s try. Instead of settling in and playing a defensive game to cling to their lead, they let the All Blacks wrestle their way back before lying down at the start of the second half. Stuart Lancaster made some big selection calls during the week, but the gamble of putting Tuilagi on the wing and Luther Burrell in at centre has to go down as a failure. Tuilagi lacked the pace needed to make any impression out wide, getting caught after he’d had a five metre head start on everyone else. He was completely outplayed by Savea, who ran outside him at will. Burrell was a non-event, easily contained by Conrad Smith and failing to make any impression. The forward pack had a mighty performance but were let down by poor decision-making at crucial times by Owen Farrell. All this leaves Lancaster with more question marks over selections in the third test with two very different performances from two different sides.
Late news to hand has revealed an injury to Conrad Smith will keep him out of the third test and possibly the rest of the Super Rugby season. It’ll be interesting to see who Steve Hansen brings in to replace him, whether he thinks Malakai Fekitoa is ready yet or boosting experienced squad member Ryan Crotty up the depth chart. Ben Smith’s performance has possibly spelled the end of Israel Dagg’s hold on the fullback jersey for the foreseeable future, although Cory Jane’s lack of form might see another reshuffle in the back three. The English have a match against the Crusaders on Tuesday night that’ll give all their extra players a run and maybe give some a case for consideration for the test.
Man of the match: Sometimes you get a test match where you just say ‘the one where such and such was awesome’ to jog people’s memory. This was one of those test matches and Ben Smith is the guy whose name will be mentioned. He was immense, from his cover tackle on Tuilagi to his try to his tireless work taking the ball into contact.
Moment of the match: If Tuilagi had the wheels to outrun Smith then this might be a very different match report as a 17-6 lead at halftime would’ve been far more of a task to overcome. The real question on this play was were on earth were the English support players? Not only did he have no one to pass to, but no one even bothered to hit the ensuing ruck and the ball was turned over.
Idiot of the match: Chris Ashton, a man with no fans in this part of the world, felt it necessary to do his stupid dive when time was up even though the try had no bearing on the outcome. Put it away pal, that sort of show-boating has no place in the game, especially when your team has lost.
Hamilton next week will be a chance for the All Blacks to take another step on their quest for the all time record for consecutive test wins. They are currently on 16 in a row, one short of the record held by the All Blacks between 1965 and 1970 and the Springboks of 1997-98. A victory next week will give them a shot at breaking the record in the first match of The Rugby Championship in Sydney against the Wallabies, so expect a full-strength side to turn out. Hopefully England’s spirits haven’t been dampened too much as they showed enough potential in the first half of the test to prove they are capable of winning on NZ soil.
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