England beat New Zealand to reach Rugby World Cup final

Eddie Jones’s side out-tackled, out-thought and out-fought the All Blacks with a performance rarely seen against the three-time world champions

Jack de Menezes
International Stadium Yokohama
Saturday 26 October 2019 11:33
England fans celebrate win over New Zealand as they enter Rugby World Cup final

England will play in their fourth Rugby World Cup final after ending New Zealand’s stranglehold on the sport in a destructive and dominant performance that will almost certainly make them favourites to reclaim the Webb Ellis Cup net weekend.

Eddie Jones’s side out-tackled, out-thought and out-fought the All Blacks with a performance rarely seen against the three-time world champions, with Manu Tuilagi’s second-minute try setting the tone for what was close to the complete display. With Owen Farrell shackled by a knee injury sustained early on, George Ford justified his return to the squad with four successful penalties to keep them out of the All Blacks’ clutches.

Led by the inspiring young back-row duo of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, England tore New Zealand’s game plan apart, preventing them from mustering anything close to what is normally witnessed by this great side. It was fitting that New Zealand’s only try - which took 57 minutes to come through Ardie Savea – was handed to them by a malfunctioning England lineout.

But remarkable England never looked to be in trouble, even when the game was still in the balance. The victory margin was 12 points in the end but it should have been far, far more, with Ben Youngs having a try dubiously chalked off and Underhill also having his own score ruled out. It may not have been a humiliating scoreline, but the gulf between the two performances could not have been any bigger.

England have told us again and again and again that they have something up their sleeve for this game – one that Jones has targeted since the day two-and-a-half years ago when the likely paths plotted this side against the best in the world.

But no one could have expected what took place in the first five minutes of this match. As soon as Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler made their way across the halfway line, you knew something special was on – and the match had not even started. The English way is to not challenge the Haka, be respectful, stand there and accept the challenge like a man. But England were here to re-write the script.

With referee Nigel Owens desperately trying to get England back into their half, ‘Swing Low’ echoing around the International Stadium Yokohama and All Black fan booing in disgust, the occasion came to life.

But this wasn’t the same England side that lost to the All Blacks last November – not in personnel nor in mentality. The Vunipolas were back, Tuilagi too, and boy did they go about letting their opponents no about it. So too was Curry, the 21-year-old flanker who missed last autumn through injury yet let New Zealand why there is a major hullaballoo about the young back-row, who together with Underhill wreaked absolute havoc on the reigning world champions with their full-blooded defence.

What was similar to last autumn was that England crossed the whitewash inside two minutes. They were deploying their new tricks left, right and centre, with Ford popping the ball to Farrell for the kick-off just to keep the All Blacks on their toes. Having received the ball back immediately from New Zealand’s touch-finder, Daly broke down the right wing and managed to offload from the tackle to the lively Anthony Watson to charge into the 22. The All Blacks had not got started at all with their defence at sixes and sevens, allowing Jamie George to make good yards on the opposite wing, before Courtney Lawes carried emphatically through the centre of the field. Sniffing the line, Tuilagi went alone, with memories of 2012 flooding back. After all this time, the All Blacks are still stick of the sight of the powerful centre.

Farrell’s conversion put England seven points to the good, allowing their dominant defence to rise to the fore. Every time New Zealand tried to muster something up, they were shut down immediately, with England enjoying close to 70 per cent of the possession in the first half and even more territory. In truth, it was a Herculean effort just for the All Blacks to stay in the game.

New Zealand’s selection demonstrated an obvious attempt to target the lineout, but they were having no impact whatsoever and it was instead Maro Itoje who was doing the damage. After Lawes plucked one out of the air on Codie Taylor’s throw, Itoje then savaged his way through the maul to win back possession, and minutes later England thought they had their second try, only for Underhill’s score to be disallowed following a television match official review that correctly penalised a crossing line from Curry in front of Sinckler.

The alarm bells were ringing soon after when Farrell collapsed to the turf, with the England captain clearly in pain and clutching his knee. But this was the big occasion, and if there was one player who was not going to be forced out of it, it was always going to be their general.

Farrell did pass kicking duties to Ford though, with the fly-half stretching the lead to 10 points on the stroke of half-time after another Curry penalty. For the first time in seven years, New Zealand had been kept scoreless through the entire first-half.

Those inside the stadium stood stunned at what had just played out in front of them, remaining poised in their place waiting for the inevitable Kiwi backlash. But it didn’t come.

England celebrate their victory at the final whistle

Instead it was England who looked to have struck another decisive blow. After Itoje won a penalty for trapping Beauden Barrett with no support, England kick to the corner to go for the jugular. Spotting a stretched defence, Ben Youngs sniped for the line, selling an outrageous dummy to make do with Anton Lienert-Brown, and England were dancing in jubilation – only for Owens to intervene again and decide with TMO Marius Jonker that the ball had been lost forward in the preceding maul.

But England did not grow frustrated, and instead Ford kicked another three points 10 minutes into the second half when replacement Sam Cane levelled Billy Vunipola with an off-the-ball tackle.

Finally, the response came. England’s lineout had been immaculate until it broke down at the worst possible time, with Jamie George missing Itoje and only finding Savea to dive over from five-metres out. With the lead cut o six, it was game on.

Yet the defensive effort delivered by England meant that New Zealand could not muster anything close to their usual beautiful brand of flowing rugby. Underhill smashed his way through Kiwi captain Kieran Read, followed up again Jordie Barrett before Tuilagi smashed Brodie Retallick, and as the frustration grew within those in black, so did the score. The experienced Sam Whitelock conceded a needless penalty for slapping Farrell in the face, Read was caught offside as New Zealand desperately defended their line and Retallick brought down a charging rolling maul – all of which culminated in another six points for Ford to put England out of reach at 19-7 ahead.

And as the game finished in a ridiculous helter-skelter attack from the All Blacks, so too did their grip on the game. Steve Hansen will leave this group now, as will Read, and a process of rebuilding will be well under way by the time the third-place play-off finished next weekend. But as Owens blew the whistle to end an incredible night in Yokohama, the England players did not erupt into a fit of celebrations. They are already aware that if they are to achieve what they set out to do at the start of this journey, they will have to produce one more big performance.

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