The shortest day of the year in New Zealand turned into a long dark night of the soul for England as Julian Savea, their chief tormentor, set about winning the third Test of a fascinating three-match series pretty much single-handedly. If the tourists were spared the worst consequences of a dire first-half performance – to their credit, they were infinitely more combative after the interval and dominated for long spells – it was still a wrenching experience for them.
Over the two-and-a-half years of Stuart Lancaster’s stewardship, England’s worst moments have come in a rush: by leaking big points quickly against the Springboks in Johannesburg; against France in Paris; and twice against the New Zealanders – at Twickenham before Christmas and in Dunedin eight days ago – they put themselves under the most enormous pressure imaginable. There was a good deal of discussion about the fault line in the days before this game, yet the message failed to register. Savea could have bagged three tries in the first 13 minutes.
As it turned out, he bagged only a brace during that profoundly dispiriting spell. But two touchdowns against the most passive of defences inside the first nine minutes – his sixth and seventh against the Red Rose in four outings, a tally bordering on the Lomu-esque – were comfortably enough to send England into a downward spiral that lasted the whole of the opening period. When it was over, they were 29-6 down and staring squarely in the face of an inevitable blackwash.
Judging by the way the world champions approached the initial exchanges, a fully tuned-in England would have struggled to hold them. The peerless Kieran Read, back at No 8 after some worrying brushes with concussion, made the odd slip, but some of his touch play was exceptional. The two Smiths, full-back Ben and scrum-half Aaron, were quicker than their opponents in thought and deed; Malakai Fekitoa, the new outside-centre, had some real horsepower about him; and Brodie Retallick, spectacularly good in the first two Tests, was… well, spectacular again.
New Zealand 36 England 13 player ratings
New Zealand 36 England 13 player ratings
1/32 Tony Woodcock - 8
Rolled back the years with his best showing for some time. Scrummaging was impressive but it was his work in the loose that stood out.
2/32 Dan Coles - 7
Should have backed himself against Ashton in the first half that would’ve stretched the lead. 100 per cent in the lineout though which will never be sniffed at.
3/32 Owen Franks - 7
Enjoyed success against Marler to get the All Blacks on the front foot in the scrum. Defence was much better as he stopped England’s pack gaining any momentum
4/32 Brodie Retallick - 7
His handling was exemplary as the lock linked the front-eight with the back line in seamless fashion. Could still add more to his carrying game, but why would you when the backs enjoy so much success
5/32 Sam Whitelock - 7
Solid defensively and a reliable jumper in the line-out
6/32 Jerome Kaino - 7
Switched to the blindside to accommodate Read, and saw his opportunities to make an impact in defence and attack limited as a result. Sacrificed late on after Crockett’s yellow card
7/32 Richie McCaw - 7
Given very little to do as his side controlled the game. A penalty in the first half tarnished a quiet day, although he felt all of Tuilagi when the centre came crashing his way
8/32 Kieran Read - 6
Given a 40 minute run out on his return from a concussion. Secured a turnover and put in half-a-dozen tackles before retiring for the day
9/32 Aaron Smith - 9
Two tries were just deserts for his performances across the past two weeks, and his quick ball contributed to New Zealand’s roaring start
10/32 Aaron Cruden - 8
Under-pressure from Beuden Barrett, Cruden delivered his best performance of the summer. Clean break led to Savea’s second try, and he kept the English second-guessing themselves
11/32 Julian Savea - 9
The unstoppable wing is the closest thing to a Jonah Lomu version two that the All Blacks have produced. Three tries to take him to 23 in 22 Tests, and scarily he could’ve had more
12/32 Ma'a Nonu - 6
The centre had a quiet game which is unusual when New Zealand are playing well, and he missed three tackles in the second half
13/32 Malakai Fekitoa - 8
Did the basics right on his first start, and gave Tuilagi and Ashton a number of problems in the first half. Played within himself, and could’ve utilised options outside him more
14/32 Corey Jane - 7
Enjoyed success against Yarde which led to Savea’s hat-trick try. The quiet man of the All Blacks’ back-three, but that’s never a bad thing
15/32 Ben Smith - 8
Another impressive showing at full-back and he could well displace Israel Dagg for good. His counter-attacking skills mean teams are scared to kick the ball away
16/32 Best off the bench: Ryan Crotty - 7
Best off the bench: Ryan Crotty – Knocked Yarde into next week when the flying wing threatened to add another score
17/32 Joe Marler - 4
Penalised early and had a lot more struggles against Frank than in previous Tests. His carrying was non-existent and gave away two penalties
18/32 Dylan Hartley - 5
Two stray lineouts were rather uncharacteristic of the hooker, who was outshone by his opposite number. Looked like a player coming to the end of a long and injury-hit season
19/32 David Wilson - 5
Had a quiet game, and came up against a rampant Woodcock in the scrum. Got wheeled when England had an attacking 5m scrum, but otherwise coped well
20/32 Joe Launchbury - 5
Has to leave briefly for a concussion check but returned immediately. Worked well with Lawes but they were outshone by their opposition in all areas
21/32 Courtney Lawes - 6
Tried to impose on the All Blacks through his ferocious defence, but they just kept on coming. One miss in the lineout, but will remember two big tackles on Smith and Fekitoa
22/32 Tom Wood - 6
Tackled hard but looked weary. His impact wasn’t felt as much as it has been on the rest of the tour. Deserves a well-earned summer off but the third Test was a game too far
23/32 Chris Robshaw - 5
Missed four tackles which is very unlike him, and missing out on a victory in New Zealand will have taken a lot out of him. Saw very little ball in hand
24/32 Billy Vunipola - 4
Had a poor game in which he was sin-binned for a high tackle on Cruden and smashed by Woodcock when he returned. Replaced by Morgan and appears to be a shadow of his former self right now
25/32 Ben Youngs - 7
Sparked England’s revival after the break, setting up Yarde’s try and nearly creating another for the wing. His best showing since breaking onto the scene Down Under
26/32 Freddie Burns - 5
Targeted Israel Dagg with high bombs in the first Test to great effect, but chose to make do with that tactic with Smith at full-back. Poor tactical game and was replaced by Ciprini in second-half
27/32 Marland Yarde - 6
Showed his prowess with the ball in hand in the second half and sniped well for his try, but his defence was worryingly poor as Jane evaded him repeatedly
28/32 Kyle Eastmond - 4
Had a poor game as he was exposed by the hard running Cruden-Nonu combination that produced space out wide. Had one short run, but hauled off at half-time
29/32 Manu Tuilagi - 6
Gave England some physicality in the midfield when they came to life. Looked to be day dreaming at times, but left mark on a wincing McCaw late in the game
30/32 Chris Ashton - 5
Tried to have an impact on the game and made a couple of nice breaks on the counter. Left stranded for Savea’s two tries, but was trampled on by his opposite man late on
31/32 Mike Brown - 5
Made a few wrong decisions that left him isolated. Saw very little action with ball in hand and his kicking game got off to a poor start when he kicked straight out
32/32 Best off the bench: Luther Burrell - 5
Introduced at half-time and shored up the English back line whose defence was all over the place. Handling could have been better
But England made it easy for them and Kyle Eastmond, the inexperienced Bath centre promoted above Billy Twelvetrees for this last hurrah, was the symbol of a wholly uncharacteristic exercise in horizontal pacifism. The well-worn phrase “rabbit in the headlights” did not begin to reflect the degree of his panic or the depth of his discomfort.
Lancaster withdrew him at the break, partly to shore up a midfield that was being cut to ribbons and partly to spare the poor man further punishment. If Eastmond recovers from this trauma any time soon, he will prove himself a tougher sort than he appeared yesterday.
Not that he was alone in being wiped out by the All Blacks, who began the game in search of a record-equalling 17th successive Test victory and achieved their hearts’ desire with two-thirds of the contest still to unfold. Freddie Burns started the match with an error of the schoolboy variety – his kick-off failed to travel the requisite 10 metres – and then missed a relatively straightforward opportunity to put England ahead with a penalty from centre field. Mike Brown, Joe Launchbury, Dylan Hartley, Billy Vunipola, Marland Yarde; each of them had their knicker-twisting moments in a grim opening quarter, and even though Burns hit the spot with two subsequent shots at goal, the respite was all too brief.
Savea, a supremely threatening runner who somehow combines power and elegance in equal measure, was not forced to show the best of himself in laying the foundations for victory. His opening try in the fourth minute owed much to the quick thinking of Aaron Smith, but it was still too simple by half. His second, less than five minutes later, needed a little more scoring – he had to hold a difficult pass before stepping inside off his wing for the finish – but the “after you, Claude” style of defending in the build-up was too alarming for words.
While his hat-trick initially went begging – he would not complete it until the last passage of play – Aaron Smith was able to carry on the good work. When Yarde missed the effervescent Cory Jane tight to the touchline, the scrum-half was on hand to nail the opportunity by sliding in at the right corner. Then, as Ben Smith found a way past Burns, he picked the right support line to take a one-handed lay-off, thereby matching Savea try for try.
There were ructions in the England dressing room at the interval, and rightly so; Lancaster might have made half-a-dozen changes rather than just the one. Whatever was said had an effect. England were barely recognisable in terms of the intensity they generated from the restart, the All Blacks suddenly found they were the ones making mistakes by the cartload, and Yarde claimed a defiant try from close range following excellent work from Launchbury, Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi.
Yarde went on to have himself a ball: time and again his instincts guided him into space and allowed him to ask serious questions of the All Black defence. But the tourists blew the half-chances that came their way and at the death it was Savea who sailed off into the distance after another assist from Jane.
It was an unpleasant last kick in the teeth for England, but it was also entirely appropriate.
New Zealand: B Smith; C Jane, M Fekitoa (R Crotty, 63), M Nonu, J Savea; A Cruden (B Barrett, 44), A Smith (T J Perenara, 74); T Woodcock (W Crockett, 63), D Coles (K Mealamu, 44), O Franks (C Faumuina, 58), B Retallick (P Tuipulotu, 76), S Whitelock, J Kaino (Woodcock, 74), R McCaw (capt), K Read (L Messam, h-t).
England: M Brown; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, K Eastmond (L Burrell, h-t), M Yarde; F Burns (D Cipriani, 59), B Youngs (L Dickson, 71); J Marler (M Mullan, 65), D Hartley (R Webber, 58), D Wilson (K Brookes, 56), J Launchbury (D Attwood, 21-26, 65), C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola (B Morgan, 56).
Referee: Jérôme Garces (France).