One test down and three games to go and it’s close but no cigar for England, and business as usual with New Zealand working a very well taken try in the closing minutes of the game to take the spoils.
As first tests go, it was exactly what we’ve come to expect, an error strewn affair. With a New Zealand team finding their feet and England playing a predominantly set piece oriented game trying to create try scoring opportunities from early phases.
To be fair whilst it was full of errors, for both sides, we’ll focus on where England went well for this one.
When all is said and done it was a reasonably good performance for England. Well as good as you can expect in a loss. The players missing from the line up was significant, but not irreplaceable, and they’ll be looking forward with some confidence to the second test and looking to build on a couple of areas of strength.
The first was the set piece, where England were dominant in the scrum and had superiority in the lineout.
People expect scrum dominance to produce a flurry of penalties, but it's not just about winning penalties and sending opponent props to the sky.
It was England’s ability to dominate the scrums that held the AB's backrow in longer than they normally would stay engaged. That in turn makes them inefficient in getting off and at Englands midfield backs in defence – this puts additional pressure on two of the AB's weakest defenders – Nonu and Cruden – which is why Smith seems to have such a torrid time against Tuilagi when the AB's play against England, because there are stress points all the way through the inside defensive line and he is not allowed to push up as early as he wants to and also means the ball has transferred long before Cruden and Nonu can drift, which means England get momentum and Tuilagi is coming onto the ball on the gain line.
The fact the AB backrow has to stay down longer also impacts on the AB wide game – as I pointed out last week, the AB's, due to Read being missing, made no bones about their intent in playing a shorter game through punching the midfield getting momentum and then playing off go forward ball. But it never really materialised. Because off primary phase ball the back row couldn't get off early which meant they were not quite efficient as usual at clearing out the rucks – and Cruden and Smith kicked a lot more than we would have normally seen with this game plan.
An example of this dominance is the Ben Morgan run in the second half leading to the Kyle Eastmond break. A number 8 to pick up is not that rare, and also isn’t that rare in a team’s own red zone but the way England used it is.
Normally your 8 cleans up takes contact you recycle 10 or 9 plays the clearance card – that’s an exit strategy everyone understands. But on this occasion on their own goal line for an 8 to run 30 metres untouched that is completely down to the fact the AB back row is staying down longer than they would have liked in the scrum.
If you watch below Messam is packed at 6 and doesn't even get off the side until Morgan has gone around him – like I said an 8 pick up in your own 22 is normally a panic mode re-action leading to an exit strategy, not an attacking weapon. Also at the start you can see Yarde talking to Morgan. This is after the scrum crabs and they are asked to re-set, there is a shot from the back and Yarde is saying to Morgan it's on – when they repack Morgan doesn't even push, he is loose and head free waiting for the ball before it's even in he’s that confident in his front five – so it is 7 vs 8 and the England pack still moves the AB's where they want.
Another important thing to note here is that England are crabbing the scrum not the AB's. They are looking to pull them infield and create space for Yarde. The scenario should be Morgan picks draws the 6 sets Yarde free…the NZ winger is deep for the kick so Yarde should get a some space to go.
They do it twice and NZ fall for it both times, on the second attempt it works out better than they could have hoped. So while the scrums only returned 3 points and two penalties for England it was a good area for them. It had a huge detrimental effect on the AB game, in both their ability to get off early and in how tiring it was for their tight 5 players.
This is also why the lineout will be a concern for Hansen et al this week, because they didn't pressure the English lineout – and were clearly panicked when they thought England might catch and set. I’m actually surprised England didn’t look to maul New Zealand a lot more.
Lets be clear though these alone are not enough to win a game but it's a good starting point for being in with a shout. It creates an area of pressure NZ don't normally experience and is one of the main reasons a second string England managed to live with the AB's.
The thing is, as Ireland found out, if you don’t play until the 81st minute you won't beat the All Blacks. They have that ability to never switch off and are able to turn a game on a sixpence – we’ll probably break down the AB’s try at a later stage as though it looks simple it’s a well crafted game breaker.
Another point is that while people are proclaiming Crudens decision to tap and go (which ultimately led to the try) as genius, audacious, and a load of other big words. The important point to remember is that at that stage New Zealand had the momentum of the game, and while it looked risky if the AB’s thought they wouldn’t’ have been able to turn the screw and come away with a try they’d have kicked the goal and taken the points and sucked up the English pressure from the restart.
1-0 to the AB’s, but everything to play for.