Chris Robshaw? You have to feel for the bloke. England had their backs to the wall ahead of last week's meeting with the Springboks, but with their captain leading the way they made a hell of a scrap of it and might even have won but for a freak try at the start of the second half – the kind of score that really hits you in the guts. Who could have guessed that, at the very end of the game, Robshaw would find himself faced with exactly the kind of decision that had caused him so much grief against Australia seven days previously?
I would certainly have gone for the corner with that last penalty rather than taken the three points and attempted to launch another attack from deep: the way I see it, once the clock goes below three minutes you're right up against it timewise. But, given all the heat and controversy generated by those calls in the Wallaby match, I could understand him feeling a little gun-shy. Maybe under the circumstances it would have been wise to invest in a little "what if?" planning ahead of the game.
If it's good enough for the All Blacks, who visit Twickenham, it's good enough for anyone. I'm thinking back to the 2007 World Cup, at which New Zealand were knocked out in the quarter-finals and the inquest was nationwide. When Graham Henry was kept on as head coach and granted a second bite of the cherry, he decided the team needed a much clearer idea of how to react and what to do on the rare occasions when the wheels came off. To that end, he spent time working with specialist consultancy groups on contingency planning.
England – the team as a whole, not just Robshaw – would certainly have benefited from some clarity and decisiveness in those closing minutes against South Africa. Going forward, why not put in place a system where a decision of that kind can be taken out of the captain's hands? Robshaw is still a rookie Test skipper – a rookie skipper under the pump, playing as he is in a position not entirely natural to him. With a big penalty call to be made in the final seconds of an exhausting battle, it would help if someone from on high made it for him. If, for example, he saw one of the staff running on with the tee, he'd know instantly what was expected of him by the coaches. As it is, he's going to start shaking every time the game clock shows two minutes to go.
The All Blacks have made plenty of teams shake down the years, and with good reason. Perhaps the thing that strikes me most about them is their pragmatism: they play the weather conditions well and they're very cute at tailoring their tactics to the opposition. For instance, there was a game against the Springboks a couple of seasons back in which they specifically sought to work their bigger opponents hard by taking them through three or four phases before turning them with the boot. It was a clever strategy with a positive purpose. Everything they do is positive.
They go into games thinking, almost assuming, that they are the better of the two teams on the field in terms of rugby ability and as a consequence, they see space as their friend. When they scrummage, they are looking to launch an attack rather than sneak a penalty decision; when they put boot to ball, it is to break up the game or create the conditions for a turnover of possession. Sometimes they'll kick in the knowledge that if the ball bounces three times, the chance of them getting it back immediately is higher than if it bounces once. They really are that precise.
New Zealand are a benchmark side because they have benchmark players. People talk all the time about Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, but there are others – notably Conrad Smith, the outside centre, who to my mind is this side's Tana Umaga. When Umaga, who also played in the No 13 position, was captain of the All Blacks, he was held in massive esteem: his presence, all that Polynesian "mana" of his, gave the team its beating heart. Smith is a different kind of player, but he commands a similar degree of respect.
If Carter is the principal playmaker, Smith is the extra pair of eyes – the second computer, if you like. Ma'a Nonu at inside centre is a fine player and an unusually threatening physical specimen, but he does not have the highly developed game sense common to the great midfield creators and organisers. Smith has that game sense. What is more, he's incredibly strong in the tackle area for a man of his size and he's pretty much error-free into the bargain. Carter is as good as he is because of his foil in the 13 jersey.
Do I expect England to beat the world's best this afternoon? No, if I'm honest. This is a mature New Zealand side, high on confidence after winning the Webb Ellis Cup a little over a year ago. But England will be brave, they'll be committed and they'll be determined not to blow out and leak points at the back end of the contest.
When I was an England coach, the final games of an autumn series could be tough: we'd sometimes compete really hard for an hour and then fall off, allowing things to get messy in the last 20. Robshaw and his players have had some hard knocks over the last fortnight and they're desperate to come out of this series with some credibility. If they can earn the respect of the All Blacks today by staying with them for the duration, that credibility will be theirs.
Brian Smith is rugby director at London Irish and the former England attack coach. His fee for this article has been donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital.Reuse content