Imperious England Set New Benchmark To Dethrone All Blacks
Maro Itoje is a colossus in a masterclass of defending by Eddie Jones' team, whose all-round superiority takes them past favourites New Zealand and into the Rugby World Cup final.
“This is the time we're going to get them,” Maro Itoje had roared, with uncharacteristic bravado in the pre-match verbals. He and his England team-mates went and delivered on the promise quite magnificently on an epic night when first they took on the haka, and then banished their All Blacks demons at the International Stadium in Yokohama.
It will be a Saturday to go down in England rugby annals, the evening when they ended New Zealand’s dream of a consecutive hat-trick of Rugby World Cup titles with a quite monumental defensive performance that reduced the champions, ultimately, to shadows of their imperious selves, scrambling courageously but helplessly to rescue their crown.
They never looked remotely likely to do it as they ran into a great impenetrable white wall built by the colossus Itoje and his friends.
The scoreline of one try each - Ardie Savea’s second-half score answered Manu Tuilagi’s rampant second-minute five-pointer - was wholly unrepresentative of England’s domination. Four penalties from the superbly assured George Ford proved rich reward for the pressure they imposed relentlessly on the champions.
Eddie Jones's team also had two tries from the magnificent Sam Underhill and Ben Youngs ruled out after TMO intervention. They squeezed New Zealand to such an extent that the champions’ discipline began to unravel with a total of 11 penalties conceded. The most rampant attacking team in the competition were restricted to a miserly 14 per cent possession in the England 22.
“We got beaten by the better side. Sometimes, sport’s not fair, but it was tonight,” shrugged New Zealand’s gracious coach Steve Hansen, who was watching as an assistant when New Zealand last lost a World Cup match in 2007. After being involved in 18 straight wins over a dozen years, he will end his great All Blacks’ coaching career with a bronze medal match against either Wales or South Africa.
One of those two teams will be England’s opponents in the final in the same Yokohama Stadium next Saturday, and they will be facing a side playing at a new, rarefied level. England's victory against Australia in the final of RWC 2003 may still be their benchmark but in performance terms, this was a triumph that almost felt more monumental.
Not that England could allow themselves to get carried away by a victory which was, if anything, more convincing than the 12-point margin suggests.
Asked where it stood in English rugby history, their clever Australian coach Jones just answered, poker-faced: “Just another week, mate, we’re here for another week. We’re not historians, we don’t know - but we know we can play better next week. We’re going to have to, whoever we play."
Perhaps Jones’s first masterstroke came before the match had even started as Tuilagi revealed it was the coach, perhaps sensing this was the time to end their dismal run of 15 defeats in 16 matches against the All Blacks, who had devised an audacious English riposte to the haka.
The scene was set for rare old drama when England advanced on both sides in a V formation, with Joe Marler getting so close to the left-hand side that referee Nigel Owens had to wave at the prop to get him to retreat. Marler seemed to pretend he had not heard as the New Zealanders were made to wait to start their pre-match ritual.
Suitably fired up, England began with a furious series of attacks. From the first lineout they launched a series of swiftly recycled assaults to put the All Blacks under pressure and by the seventh phase of the unrelenting waves, Tuilagi was ready to burrow over for the first try in just 98 seconds.
The All Blacks seemed shell-shocked at conceding the fastest try in their Rugby World Cup history. They never truly recovered their poise as they ran into some crushing hits, particularly from Sam Underhill in the back-row, pictured centre above, and Itoje, whose telescopic arms won him a match-high three turnovers and seven lineouts in a Player-of-the-Match performance.
Owen Farrell struggled after taking a knock to the leg but it did not stop him ploughing into 15 tackles even if, after converting Tuilagi’s try, he had to hand the kicking duties to Ford, whose excellent tactical kicking also justified his return to the starting line-up.
Scott Barrett, given his first start at No.6, made a try-saving tackle on Jonny May but his inclusion failed to stop New Zealand lineout ball being robbed twice. Hansen said he, as coach, would take the responsibility for his selection.
Underhill powered through a wide gap to storm over in the 25th minute but it was ruled out for Tom Curry blocking off a potential tackle. Then, after England had gone into the break 10-0 up - the first time the All Blacks had been ‘blanked’ in the first-half in any Rugby World Cup match since 1991 - Youngs also scurried over, only for the TMO to rule the ball had gone forward in a maul.
Only when Jamie George overthrew on England's own lineout for the brilliant Savea to pile over for a score did the All Blacks have a sniff, rekindling memories of how England had blown a 15-point lead at Twickenham last year. But this year's England were a model of calmness as they sent on their impressive ‘finishers’.
The great All Blacks captain Kieran Read’s face said it all at the end. “We gave our all, gave it everything we had, but just came up short. We’re all hurting,” he said.
Hansen reckoned: “There’s no shame in it, but a lot of hurt which could all feed into a lot of All Blacks teams in the future.”
It felt like the end of the dominant All Blacks era, and threw up the tantalising question of whether an English reign might just be about to start.