The Twickenham File: Chris Robshaw's men lack killer bite when they are starved of scrums


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The Independent Online

Where do you consider England's traditional strengths lie? That's right, the set-piece, the less than glamorous areas on which success is founded. Where did it go wrong for England yesterday when the outcome hung in the balance, midway through the second half? That's right, the set-piece or, with regard to the scrum, the lack of it.

In the first half England imposed themselves at scrum-time in just the way they had hoped, albeit without control of the ball at every stage. In the second half they only had two put-ins, so the scrum as an attacking platform was taken away from them.

This is not merely coincidence. No side in the world are better than New Zealand for game appreciation, and the lesson to be taken from this encounter is that England lack such understanding. The All Blacks preferred here to play their set-piece game out of touch. That area had been well contested throughout but, around the hour mark, it slipped out of England's reach: sadly for Tom Youngs, the fault line opened on his watch after he replaced Dylan Hartley at hooker.

It should not have been so, since his Leicester colleague Geoff Parling was already on the pitch as replacement lock and line-out guru, but two line-outs were lost and a third followed.

You could argue that the concession of a fourth led to the crucial third New Zealand try. England may have won a line-out on their own 22 but Ben Morgan knocked on in the ensuing maul, the All Blacks were held in the right-hand corner but came back left for Julian Savea to score his second try.

Richie McCaw, their captain, spoke about the ability to take chances and this, in the end, was the difference between the sides.Once McCaw's team had nosed ahead once again, their scrum was rock-steady. If anyone had extra reason to be pleased in their camp it was Mike Cron, their scrum coach, who saw his tight forwards keep their noses to the grindstone even in the absence after half-time (with a strained hamstring) of Tony Woodcock, one of his country's four centurions.

Carter takes the lead in numbers game

Neither side were led out by their captain: Dan Carter did the honours for New Zealand on his 100th appearance, Dylan Hartley for England on his 50th. "It's just a number," Hartley had growled earlier in the week, referring to Carter's more significant achievement in reaching his ton but the Saints man will start 2014 as England's first-choice hooker, ahead of Tom Youngs.

Read the wild rover is world's best No 8

Every England player upped his game faced with the need to compete with the best country in world rugby. But when push came to shove they still lacked the absolute class purveyed by players such as New Zealand's Kieran Read, the best No 8 around bar none. Read spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin around half-time yet was still close to being man of the match. Try-scorer, creator of chances, he is the rover that no opponent has found a way of quashing; he will win you line-out ball when required, but his best role is in the loose such is his ability to keep the ball in play. If Billy Vunipola, who created problems of his own with ball in hand and received due praise from England's manager, Stuart Lancaster, afterwards, and Ben Morgan spend their Christmas studying tapes of Read's display in this match, they will be the better for it.

Time to put the boot in

Much of New Zealand's half-time talk revolved around two areas: field position and retaining possession. As the game slipped away in the final 10 minutes, where were England to be seen? Playing with ball in hand between their own 22 and 10-metre lines, from where they were never going to recover the initiative, rather than putting a big boot to the ball and playing as deep as possible into New Zealand territory.

Wood a chip off the Kiwi block

They learn young in New Zealand. Tom Wood, the England flanker, spent a formative year at Oamaru in New Zealand, the birthplace of Richie McCaw, and Wood understands the sly moves which remain part and parcel of the game. Watch him sweep no less an individual than Kieran Read with him into a ruck during the first half, thereby taking the All Black No 8 out of play.

Red Rose can bloom further

"If England can run the ABs that close now, they could be a hell of a side in two years' time," one seasoned New Zealand observer said. That is precisely where England look to be: a starting XV with just over 300 caps was playing the top-ranked team with over 800 caps to their name and experience told, but remember, England were bereft through injury of first choices at wing, in the centre, front row and back row.


The most points England have conceded at home in five years, since losing 32-8 to New Zealand in November 2008.