>> Nick Cain anal­y­sis

Man by man, here’s why Ed­die fears the All Blacks

The Rugby Paper - - Front Page - NICK CAIN TAKES A DE­TAILED

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.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

One of few: Maro Itoje is ahead of his All Black ri­val

Lethal: Rieko Ioane Too pas­sive: Ge­orge Ford

World’s best: Beau­den Bar­rett

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