Rugby

England: A superb comeback against New Zealand cannot hide the lack of progress and attacking flair

If England are going to rescue their year and have a genuine shot at winning the World Cup, their review of Saturday’s mad match has to focus on the first 70 minutes, not the last 10.

Whatever they said publicly after somehow snatching a draw from a position of doom, an inquest is in order. The brilliance of the comeback should heighten the sense of angst behind the scenes about the glaring inadequacies of what preceded it.

The Springboks are in London ready to dish out more physical punishment so England cannot afford to paper over cracks this week. Thankfully, there were signs following the great escape against the All Blacks that frustrations outside the squad were being felt inside it, too.

England rescued a 25-25 draw against New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday evening

England rescued a 25-25 draw against New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday evening

Coach Eddie Jones was pleased with the dramatic late comeback but it papers over the cracks

Coach Eddie Jones was pleased with the dramatic late comeback but it papers over the cracks

If England are to win the World Cup, they need an inquest into the under-par first 70 minutes

If England are to win the World Cup, they need an inquest into the under-par first 70 minutes

Maro Itoje admitted that any draw in such a momentous fixture feels ‘weird’ and the Saracens lock addressed the profound concern among English supporters.

‘We are proud that we stuck in it and we didn’t go away and proud that we played some great rugby towards the end of that game, but we need to play like that for the whole game,’ he said.

‘Why can’t we play like that for the whole game? We have an incredible amount of potential in this team, we just need to unlock it. We are showing it in patches, but we need to have that 80-minute game. 

‘We didn’t get out of the blocks how we wanted to. We left it until the second half when all the pressure was on us to finally be free and finally play this type of rugby that we want to play.’

Having scored two of the late tries which allowed England to rally from 25-6 down with nine minutes remaining, Bath prop Will Stuart insisted the post-mortem would pay attention to how the hosts found themselves in such a deep hole. ‘It will definitely be on what we can fix,’ he said. ‘That first half will be a big focus point.’

Eddie Jones struck an upbeat tone in the post-match debrief by acclaiming his team’s spirit and resilience. But that should be a given, always — especially at home. It is a minimum requirement, that they will show tenacity and fight.

There is no questioning the spirit in the ranks. It was evident in Brisbane when England turned around their series against Australia in July. They keep ticking that box, but several others remain empty.

Snatching a late draw does little to hide the lack of progress and attacking flair in the side

Snatching a late draw does little to hide the lack of progress and attacking flair in the side

Rieko Ioane's try showed the creativity and off-the-cuff thinking in attack that England lacked

Rieko Ioane’s try showed the creativity and off-the-cuff thinking in attack that England lacked

Still, the wait goes on for a signature performance since the last World Cup. The national team have not been imperious against top-ranked opponents since they dismantled New Zealand in Yokohama three years ago. 

Still, the wait goes on for clear signs of definitive progress and attacking direction. If they are indeed seeking to hide their true potential until the World Cup – however flawed that concept is – then they are doing so very effectively, based on the latest evidence.

England were terrible in the first half on Saturday and when they established some momentum after the break, handling errors and indiscipline kept undermining the salvage operation.

Itoje is right to wonder why they keep having to be backed into a corner before coming alive with daring intent. Before the win over Japan, they spoke about freeing themselves up and they did so in that thumping win, but faced by the All Blacks, they went back to being uptight.

The mantra in the build-up was ‘we are going to go after them’ but the opposite occurred. It was a reversal of the Yokohama script from 2019 as New Zealand were the ones who were thunderously effective from the off and England were all at sea, scrambling for stability.

Even when they had more possession and territory during the second half, the revival foundered time and again.

The Amazon commentary in the 65th minute was illuminating, with comments about Jones’ side ‘running out of ideas’ due to ‘a lack of flow and cohesion’. These are familiar laments.

Kiwi captain Sam Whitelock lifted the Sir Edmund Hillary Shield aloft at the end of the match

Kiwi captain Sam Whitelock lifted the Sir Edmund Hillary Shield aloft at the end of the match

English skills failed them for long periods. A torrent of errors could not be explained by the conditions, as was the case when the Pumas ambushed them earlier in the month. There appeared to be so much anxiety, after so much confident talk in the days prior.

Jones has rammed home the need for England to be adaptable on the field but that trait was also missing this time. 

They kept appearing shocked when the All Blacks repeatedly kicked diagonally to the hosts’ right wing — negating Freddie Steward’s aerial assurance by targeting Jack Nowell. England also failed to adapt to referee Mathieu Raynal, who was at least consistent in pedantically penalising both teams.

This was another occasion which stirred up unrest in the shires about England’s perceived inability to function as the sum of so many promising parts. 

Any assessment of what has improved since the last World Cup would point to the emergence of Steward as a one-man area of progress at full-back. He was magnificent, yet again. But what else?

The scrum seems to be at the same work-in-progress stage as it was three years ago, which should concern Matt Proudfoot — who oversaw the Boks’ set-piece dominance before Jones hired him. 

On the flip-side, the under-manned lineout was an emphatic success on Saturday and that is credit to the work of Richard Cockerill on the training ground and Itoje on the pitch.

England could struggle if they come up against Ian Foster's All Blacks at the 2023 tournament

England could struggle if they come up against Ian Foster’s All Blacks at the 2023 tournament

Until the handbrake was released as a late act of desperation, England were clunky in attack yet again. How refreshing it was to see Marcus Smith run free in space to spark the recovery, although England were most effective when they had a numerical advantage, after Beauden Barrett’s yellow card with nine minutes to go.

Defeat against South Africa on Saturday would mean England finishing 2022 with an annual return of six losses, five wins and a draw from 12 Tests. 

That is an unacceptable record, so Jones will recognise the desperate need this week to properly harness so much talent at his disposal. There are so many fine players in the country and an impatient public have every right to expect more.

In the grand scheme of things, the uproar about England’s decision to kick the ball out at the end, rather than go for glory, was a red herring. 

The focus must be on the shortcomings of the first 70 minutes. But it is safe to say that Smith would not have erred on the side of caution when playing for Harlequins and the All Blacks would have gone for broke, too.

‘I know where our mindset was,’ said Rieko Ioane, the scorer of the visitors’ brilliant third try. ‘We always want to go for the win. Even on their side, they looked confused.’

Henry Slade stood with his hands on his head, evidently disappointed at the decision to calculate the risk and accept the draw. But England at least got out of jail and now they must hurriedly work out how they found themselves in there in the first place.


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