New Zealand now have only Ireland to beat in Dublin next Sunday to go to complete a clean sweep of the calendar year after England were left splattered as the All Blacks’ 13th roadkill of 2013. The crying shame for the home team was not just that they were unable to repeat their victory of last year over the planet’s No 1 ranked Test team, but that an impressively coherent game-plan unravelled in achingly obvious fashion when the line-out fell apart during the second half.
Richie McCaw’s men moved their stunningly dominant record on to just that one loss to England in 34 Tests since August 2011 – and it was an inadvertent bang against the mighty McCaw’s hip suffered by Dylan Hartley that heralded England’s demise after they had fought back from a terrible opening. Hartley staggered off in the 51st minute and his replacement Tom Youngs had three line-out throws out of four pilfered by the ravenous All Blacks.
The one that England did catch safely – the third, chucked as a supposedly safe option to the front of a shortened line – led to trouble anyway as the ball was dropped in the maul, and New Zealand, with a sweeping move left to right and back again, made a second try of the match for their wing Julian Savea. It had New Zealand 27-22 up after 63 minutes so there was time to respond, but Youngs’s throwing woes, after England had enjoyed Fort Knox-safety in that facet earlier on, knocked the stuffing out of them.
In the absence of the wrecking-ball hero of the 2012 fixture, Manu Tuilagi, England found themselves 17-3 down with just 16 minutes gone – a second-minute try to Savea from a sumptuous bit of business by Kieran Read to fox Chris Ashton following a line-out near the England goal-line, then one for the No 8 himself when the prop Owen Franks was launched through a gap and England’s back-three defence got in a muddle – the obvious thought was, ho hum, the game’s up.
A similar emotional pall descended when New Zealand fought back to 15-14 down with two quick third-quarter tries a year ago. Yesterday the gut feeling turned out to be spot on but, blimey, what an entertaining – and, more importantly for the future prospects of a still young team – intelligent struggle England made of it. By half-time they had closed to within four points, doing so by backing themselves to score with penalties to touch and clever thought at close quarters in addition to the more overt talent of the brawny handling of Billy Vunipola (to whom New Zealand kicked very restart, for no apparently good reason).
Farrell’s kicks around the mid-point of the half gave England line-outs either side of a scrum penalty, eventually leading to Vunipola being drived over by his pack. It appeared on replays that the home No 8 had slid over the goal-line to score but the television match official declared it “inconclusive”. If injustice raged in the English belly it was channelled intelligently. Not necessarily at the resulting scrum, which broke apart scrappily and rather fortunately into a second try in consecutive Tests for Joe Launchbury, after Read missed the ball and Tom Wood toed it towards the line.
Soon afterwards when Read – with his team on a warning from the referee Craig Joubert for persistent infringement – went very marginally in at the side of a ruck, an English tackler made sure Joubert blew up and sent Read to the sin-bin. Farrell’s penalty added to his conversion of Launchbury’s try came either side of a nerveless 40-metre penalty by Aaron Cruden, on sadly early from a neutral view point, as the great Dan Carter on his 100th Test appearance had hobbled off. Carter had converted both New Zealand tries and kicked a penalty; Farrell had a penalty in in the seventh minute and added another three minutes before the interval when England took a scrum against the head – by driving upwards, they drew attention to the discomfort of the All Blacks who had Ma’a Nonu as an emergency flanker.
And what of McCaw? The man is a machine, we all know, and he just kept motoring, plastering poor Hartley with one run and fighting his usual turf war after the tackle.
The magnificent Wood and Mike Brown tackled urgently and brilliantly; Ashton looked as nervous in defence as he had been in the previous fortnight’s wins over Australia and Argentina but he was entitled to moan loudly at the lack of a yellow card when the prop Wyatt Crockett blocked him off chasing a kick ahead. A missed penalty by Cruden and two more successes for Farrell after 52 and 59 minutes had England 22-20 up. But New Zealand make an art form out of timely tries and Savea’s second, converted by Cruden, was certainly one of those.
In the remaining minutes England, with their captain Chris Robshaw peering through one eye almost closed like a boxer’s, were attacking from too deep. Yes, they missed some absent friends – the injured props Mako Vunipola and Alex Corbisiero, and the flanker Tom Croft, would have had power to add – but they must not resort to such excuses.
Billy Twelvetrees carried the fight and looks a midfielder to build a back division around. The feisty Farrell is improving season by season. As Cruden finished the All Blacks’ job with a 42-metre penalty on 71 minutes there was a realisation that one improving team had brought something like the best out of the other. Winning, occasionally, isn’t everything.
England: M Brown; C Ashton, J Tomkins (A Goode 77), B Twelvetrees, B Foden; O Farrell (T Flood 68), L Dickson (B Youngs 65); J Marler (M Mullan 77), D Hartley (T Youngs 51), D Cole (D Wilson 77), J Launchbury (G Parling 47), C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola (B Morgan 58).
New Zealand: I Dagg; C Piutau (R Crotty 72), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; D Carter (A Cruden 26), A Smith (T Kerr-Barlow 72); T Woodcock (W Crockett 41), K Mealamu (D Coles 60), O Franks (C Faumuina 43), B Retallick (L Romano 65), S Whitelock, L Messam (S Luatua 65), R McCaw (capt), K Read.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa)