England vs New Zealand analysis: England remain way off pace of mighty All Blacks

Wasteful decision-making by Chris Robshaw at the end highlights a gulf in mentality

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The Independent Online

England do not always sing from the same hymn sheet when they congregate with the All Blacks in the great rugby cathedrals of the world: if they did, the New Zealanders would find it a whole lot harder to score the kind of cheap tries claimed by Aaron Cruden and Richie McCaw during the latest chapter of a saga now rivalling the Old Testament for length. Yet they believe, devoutly, that they are on the straight-and-narrow road to salvation, and that by this time next year they will have reached the end of it.

“Judging by the first half there’s not much between the teams, if anything,” said Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, after a 24-21 defeat at the hands of the silver-ferned maestros: a fifth consecutive loss to these opponents, four of them of the single-digit variety. Judging by the clipped responses of his bitterly disappointed charges – “another ‘what if’,” muttered the full-back Mike Brown; “it’s getting to be a common theme,” groaned the hooker Dylan Hartley – there is unison on this subject at least. To a man, they viewed it as another one that slipped away.

If they are correct in their assertion that the big things are in place, it must be the small things that continue to separate the sides. The trouble comes when the things that seem small are, in reality, symptoms of an extremely large and serious issue, and there was a striking illustration of this at the back end of Saturday’s contest – a moment that did not go unnoticed by the All Blacks.

England were 10 points down, having been comprehensively out-thought and out-manoeuvred in the half-hour after the interval, when, with three minutes left on the clock, they finally found themselves deep in the tourists’ 22 with a penalty award in their favour. So what did they do? Kick the goal and sprint back for the restart knowing they now had a shot at taking something from the game? Run the ball in search of a try that would set up the mother and father of a grandstand finish? No, of course not. What they chose was a scrum, thereby removing the best part of 90 seconds from the equation.

 

Lancaster said he was comfortable with this decision, pointing out that when his captain, Chris Robshaw, called for a second set-piece a minute or so later, the forwards were rewarded with a penalty try. But the coach must know that if the boot had been on the other foot the New Zealanders would not, in a month of Sundays, have considered frittering away valuable attacking time on a set-piece. They would have tapped and gone. Straight over the line, in all likelihood.

“Yeah, it was kind of strange,” said the impish Cruden, who was watching the denouement from a seat on the bench following a highly effective hour-long contribution in the No 10 position that was as notable for its discipline and patience as for its pyrotechnics. “With so little time left, I thought they’d tap it and try to get things moving.” For the avoidance of doubt, Cruden’s face was a picture of bemusement, and the fact that he simply could not understand the thinking says all that needs saying about the gulf in mindset. Which, in the final analysis, is a very big thing indeed.

There were precisely 17 seconds remaining after all this, which just about amounted to one last opportunity. Twice in recent memory, in Dublin last year and in Brisbane last month, the All Blacks had maximised such chances to win games they appeared to have lost, piecing together multi-phased attacks that were minor miracles of clarity and execution under pressure. England’s attempt was the opposite. In running the ball from deep, two amateur-hour passes were aimed at Robshaw’s bootlaces, the second of which was knocked on. A proper botch job, in other words.

Charlie Faumuina’s clinching try early in the final quarter, just after the All Blacks had been restored to full strength following the hooker Dane Coles’ trip to the cooler for a strop-fuelled kick that left the England scrum-half Danny Care nursing a sore ankle, was not exactly a thing of beauty. There could hardly have been a greater contrast between the Auckland prop’s bulldozing finish in heavy traffic and Jonny May’s glory run down the left touchline in the fourth minute, which gave England an early lead that might have proved significant had Brown doubled it in the other corner a short while later instead of fumbling Kyle Eastmond’s clever cut-out pass with the line at his mercy.

But the Faumuina score did serve to remind a record Twickenham crowd of 82,223 – some of whom booed when the industrious McCaw was named man of the match, which shows how dumb people can be – that when the chips are down, these All Blacks turn accuracy into an art form. The precision of their close-quarter phase play in the build-up to the try would have been jaw-dropping in dry conditions. With the rain pouring down, it was nothing short of astonishing.

Their other tries were too soft for words. Lancaster will want to know why both Hartley and Courtney Lawes, usually so deadly in the tackle, gave Jerome Kaino the red-carpet treatment in the England 22 in the build-up to Cruden’s score. He will also have a long discussion with the debutant lock George Kruis, whose plunge out of the defensive line – not so much a schoolboy error as an antenatal one – presented the New Zealanders with a two-man overlap and a touchdown for McCaw.

In truth, though, we are talking deckchairs and the Titanic here. England, driven along by Robshaw and a pumped-up Dave Attwood, performed pretty well up front, as ever, and were still in there scrapping at the end, as ever.

But when it comes to the little big things, they are still a good yard off the All Black pace – and at this level, a yard is as good as a mile.

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