>> Nick Cain analysis
Man by man, here’s why Eddie fears the All Blacks
ARE England obsessed by New Zealand? It’s less of a question than a statement of the bleeding obvious given the number of times Eddie Jones mentions the All Blacks as the pacesetters that England have to overhaul if they are to become world champions in 2019.
A few days ago Jones was given World Rugby’s ‘coach of the year’ award in Monaco, long known as a playground for tycoons and arms dealers like the late Adnan Khashoggi. Having finished the autumn with a record of won 22 out of 23 Tests after his first two years as England coach, Jones had blown the competition out of the water – including New Zealand’s double World Cup winner Steve Hansen.
By comparison with Jones, whose single defeat came against Ireland in the Grand Slam game in Dublin in the last Six Nations, Hansen has had a stinker – but only if you live by the unforgiving standards the All Blacks adhere to.
However, New Zealand’s three losses over the last year – against Ireland, the Lions, and Australia – did not stop the England coach from declaring himself a lucky man, and handing the plaudits to Hansen.
With Jones there’s often a bit of cloak-and-dagger behind the humility, but this time there appeared to be no hidden stiletto when he said: “I must admit I feel a bit embarrassed getting it. We’re not the number one team in the world…I think Steve Hansen should be up here.”
The biggest drawback of this Autumn series from the England coach’s perspective is that his side did not get a crack at New Zealand. That way, had his team won, the embarrassment element would have been taken out of the equation.
Instead, Jones has no true measure of where he and his team are in relation to the world champions – he can only surmise, like the rest of us, until England play the All Blacks for the first time in four years next autumn.
The second biggest drawback is that the surmising around the relative merits of the two teams does not come down in England’s favour, and the time to put it right is slipping away ever so steadily. In fact, a comparison points categorically to New Zealand being superior in almost every department.
Jones acknowledges the benchmarks set by New Zealand almost every time he talks about them, but it is not until you do a man-for-man audit that the size of the gains his team has to make over the next two years truly comes into focus.
In the two best starting fifteens selected for each team over the past year I have England ahead of their All Black rivals in just three positions – loose-head Mako Vunipola, lock Maro Itoje, and insidecentre/goal-kicker Owen Farrell. All of them were leading lights in the Lions drawn series with New Zealand, and their credentials have been burnished by the manner in which they rose to that challenge.
In the other 12 positions the All Blacks are ahead, and it is a reasonable assumption that if England cannot win more than three individual battles then their chance of supplanting New Zealand as world champions is minimal.
Furthermore, while England followers can argue that it is the sum of their team’s parts that makes them formidable, there are few teams who outstrip New Zealand in terms of collective strength. England may be making improvements – and this is reflected by an even split in the marking on the replacements bench – but the same is true of New Zealand.
Nothing illustrates the depth of their playing resources more than the way they made good the loss of first-choice players during their unbeaten autumn run.
The absentees included worldclass players like lock Brodie Retallick and full-back/wing Ben Smith, both of whom were given sabbaticals by Hansen. Injuries like those to loose-head Joe Moody (shoulder), tight-head Owen Franks (Achilles tendon), hooker Dane Coles (knee), blindside Jerome Kaino (knee), wing/full-back Israel Dagg (knee), wing Nehe MilnerSkudder (shoulder), and utility back Jordie Barrett (shoulder), made New Zealand’s autumn ledger all the more impressive.
Where New Zealand are ahead of the curve is their recognition that with increasingly effective defences at international level there is a massive premium on having players with the individual flair to crack them open. It is an area in which New Zealand hold a distinct advantage over England. And although England’s 15-man Lions contingent returned as better players, where they had least impact was in terms of strike power.
Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson had impressive tours, forcing their way into the Lions Test side, but neither of the English wingers were as lethal in attack as Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett were for New Zealand.
Jones was spot on when he called his Autumn games, “Good, but not bloody good”
Daly had an important hand in the brilliant Lions first Test try touched down by Sean O’Brien, but the main architects were the two Welshmen, Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies.
In the second Test victory it was Taulupe Faletau’s brilliant touchde line drive which made the most of Williams’ beautifully-timed pass, while hooker Jamie George made a cleaner, sharper break than any of the English backs did during the series to set up Conror Murray’s decisive try.
The biggest elephant in the room when it comes to England’s attack is that the midfield hub featuring George Ford at 10 and Farrell at 12 offers little line-breaking menace.
There is no question that the Ford-Farrell combo threatens through the quality and timing of their passing – and to a lesser extent through their tactical kicking – but where Beauden Barrett burns holes
in defences, Ford’s game appears increasingly restricted.
The England play-makers ran out of ideas when Ireland slammed the door shut last March, and despite the limitations of Argentina and Samoa this autumn, Ford’s reluctance to use his acceleration to break the line gives England the stamp of predictability.
Farrell is a steely competitor and a great goal-kicker – and he is much more effective at taking the gap than he was earlier in his career – but he still does not threaten ball in hand at inside-centre in the way that Ben Te’o or Manu Tuilagi can.
The upshot is that, unlike New Zealand, England are limited to having a tilt only at 9, 13, 11, 14, and if Mike Brown has his vision goggles on, 15. A further obstacle is that at present none of the England players in those positions are ranked by me ahead of their All Black rivals.
A comparison between Ioane and Waisake Naholo, the first choice New Zealand wings on this tour, and their England opposite numbers, tells the tale. The quality of their finishing against Wales last weekend, with each scoring two tries, was a cut above England’s in accuracy, execution and power – as well as acrobatics in Naholo’s case, and athleticism in Ioane’s.
With Ben Smith, Milner-Skudder, Dagg, and Julian Savea left behind, their talent pool is brimful.
In the pack New Zealand do not hold all the aces, but they have a clear advantage in the back row. England may get away with a lack of pace at 6, 7 and 8 against Argentina and Samoa, but they are unlikely to do so against New Zealand, a fullstrength Australia, and, heading into the Six Nations, a revamped Scotland or an Ireland side with Grand Slam aspirations.
Sam Underhill has indicated he may have handling skills to augment his destructive tackling, but England need to fast-track Sam Simmonds to see if he can make his speed count at openside.
England were outplayed at the breakdown by the Samoan back row, and that, along with a shortfall in dynamic linking and support running, means they are not close to offering the go-forward that Kieran Read and the fast-improving Sam Cane give the All Blacks.
Jones was spot on when he described his side after their Autumn games as, “Good, but not bloody good”. He has also said that thanks to England’s Lions contingent his outfit have an “outstanding” dossier on the All Blacks. They will need all the insight they can get, because New Zealand head home after a northern tour with an under-strength squad looking bloody good.
One of few: Maro Itoje is ahead of his All Black rival
Lethal: Rieko Ioane Too passive: George Ford
World’s best: Beauden Barrett