It always looked a gamble.
Steve Hansen made a strange selection decision for this semi-final. After settling on a back-row combination with two opensides, and watching them thrive throughout the tournament, the New Zealand coach decided to make a change.
Scott Barrett is by no means a bad player. The lock is incredibly athletic and more than capable on the flank, with a gorgeously diverse skillset in attack and ability to cover space in defence.
But this was a move that destabilised everything the All Blacks had built. Out went Sam Cane, breaking up his partnership with Ardie Savea that had proved so effective during the course of the World Cup. Cane is one of New Zealand’s key leaders, too.
Quite why Hansen opted to make the change is not fully clear, but it seems to have largely been influenced by Barrett’s impact on the blindside in last year’s one-point All Blacks victory at Twickenham. There he destroyed the hosts’ lineout, and added muscle to help New Zealand regain parity up front.
But that was a different New Zealand. More pertinently, this was a different England.
This was a move that went against everything you typically associate with the All Blacks – the greatest rugby team in the world were worrying about the opposition. In knockout rugby, the adage goes that you control the controlables, focus on executing your gameplan rather than look to combat your opponents’. New Zealand had focused on exactly the opposite.
And it cost them. England were utterly dominant in the first half, jumping into a ten-point first half lead as New Zealand struggled to adjust. By the time the selection error was rectified, with Sam Cane introduced at half-time, it was too late.
Barrett’s introduction in the back-row was a move to give New Zealand ascendancy at the set-piece, but the change actually proved detrimental, particularly at the lineout.
Adding a third specialist lock to your pack can complicate your lineout processes. Defensively, where you would typically be definite in who you are lifting with two second rows, you can sometimes obsess with mixing it up, and thus you lose your timing an accuracy. Similarly, on your throw, having too many options can be a curse. Your structures and lifting combinations change.
It is not as if Barrett was replacing someone without lineout skills, either. Sam Cane is a more than capable jumper. Indeed, in Kieran Read New Zealand possess a fine back-row lineout operator, and Ardie Savea can be hoisted, too. Sometimes having two genuine first options and three alternatives is better than three and two.
England showed this. Some had suggested shifting one of Itoje and Lawes to the flank and introduce George Kruis to combat New Zealand’s aerial threat, but this would have been unwise. England had great clarity over their lineout calls and competing jumpers, and in Itoje and Lawes two long-levered athletes to steal the All Blacks ball.
New Zealand hooker began to panic, forcing throws, one low, one thrown too early. Lawes and Itoje repeatedly got their paws to the ball in defence, denying the All Blacks stable set-piece ball. Jamie George hit his jumpers, and England were able to build from settled structure.
They also struggled desperately to slow England’s ball down at the breakdown. Savea is one of the finer pilferers in world rugby, but he was fighting a lone hand without running mate Cane. While there are other players in the New Zealand side capable of muddying the ruck waters, England were able to focus on Savea’s threat.
The openside got through a mountain of first half work, seemingly attacking almost every ruck as either tackler or jackaler, but there is little you can do when the opposition are so focused on you. England resourced and over-resourced to deny Savea clear chances at stealing, and with referee Nigel Owens typically unwilling to go to his whistle, they were allowed to pile bodies in and shift Savea from the ball on the rare occasions he did manage to get his hands to it.
That meant England were able to generate quick ball throughout the first half. That is when England are at their most devastating. Eddie Jones and attack coach Scott Wisemantel have worked incredibly hard to increase the speed of England’s phase play since Wisemantel was hired in 2018, to their great benefit. The return of Manu Tuilagi allows them to have guaranteed front foot ball from first phase if they desire, and the outside centre is so effective as a decoy, too.
England should have scored more than ten points in the first half. New Zealand were incapable of slowing ball, allowing England to go through their attacking movements at pace and open gaps. They worked the ball to width, attacked Richie Mo’unga wherever the fly-half stood (he was often shifted away from the threat of Manu Tuilagi) and win the collisions. Tuilagi scored inside two minutes; the excellent Sam Underhill had one chalked off.
New Zealand’s change also allowed England’s new dynamic duo, Tom Curry and Underhill, free rein. The pair were utterly magnificent. If this game was to be decided by match-ups, Curry/Underhill vs Savea/Cane looked to be a key one – New Zealand had conceded defeat before the game had even begun.
New Zealand were forced to change things at half-time. It is relatively rare that they are forced to adjust in terms of personnel – they are usually a side that looks to solve things with the existing players on the field before going to the bench. But the Scott Barrett gamble had completely failed. England were so far in the ascendancy that Steve Hansen had to alter things.
On came Cane. He helped stabilise things for New Zealand, adding an extra forager and helping slow things down in defence. England remained the better side, but New Zealand were now able to stall their attack somewhat.
The lineout functioned better, too. The combinations that had worked so well throughout the tournament were back together, and they allowed Savea to score.
With Brodie Retallick putting pressure on Maro Itoje at the front of the lineout, George hurried his throw, trying to get it over Retalick’s leap and force it into his jumper’s hands. Itoje was not at the apex of his jump when George’s throw hit the top of its arc – into the hands of Savea at the back it sailed, and New Zealand had the try.
But by then the damage had been done. England’s first half had won them the game. New Zealand had been beaten at a World Cup for the first time in 12 years.
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