Close, but no cigar

Sam Un­der­hill looks to have beaten All Blacks with bril­liant late try only for ref­eree to dis­al­low it af­ter TMO re­fer­ral

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Mick Cleary RUGBY UNION COR­RE­SPON­DENT at Twick­en­ham

So close. So gut-wrench­ing. Yet also so promis­ing and uplift­ing even if Eng­land came up short. Ed­die Jones im­plored his men to be di­rec­tors of the movie, not bit-part ex­tras. The Eng­land head coach got what he wanted. It was the movie that Twick­en­ham wanted, too, a thriller that could have been scripted by Al­fred Hitch­cock and even if it left them bereft when a hair-line call by tele­vi­sion match official Mar­ius Jonker de­nied them what looked to be a le­git­i­mate, match-win­ning try from Sam Un­der­hill five min­utes from time, they had great value for money.

The teem­ing rain did not dampen the spir­its of any­one in the ca­pac­ity crowd. It was a top-dol­lar event, the most lu­cra­tive ever staged at Twick­en­ham with prof­its of £15mil­lion, but no one would have be­grudged a penny spent.

The call went against Court­ney Lawes for off­side as he blocked a kick by TJ Per­e­nara on the 10-me­tre line. At best, it looked a tight de­ci­sion, too tight for the cir­cum­stances and Eng­land had every right to feel ag­grieved.

The at­tack­ing team should surely have the ben­e­fit of any doubt. World Rugby had is­sued a di­rec­tive only two days ear­lier in­struct­ing the ref­eree to take the ini­tia­tive on big de­ci­sions and use the TMO for guid­ance. Jerome Garces ab­ro­gated that re­spon­si­bil­ity. Matches should not be de­cided on mar­ginal in­ter­pre­ta­tions. It was a gaffe.

Who were th­ese guys in white? A wholly dif­fer­ent out­fit, that’s for sure, from the first-half op­er­a­tors against South Africa, pumped-up, on-mes­sage and smart, play­ing as one. It was a huge pick-me-up from seven days ago, that even­tual vic­tory not­with­stand­ing, a per­for­mance to in­di­cate that Eng­land are on track for a World Cup chal­lenge.

You might nit-pick that Eng­land did not score a point af­ter the 24th minute, that their line-out fell apart and that they opted for tries rather than penalty points in the clos­ing stages. But to fo­cus on that would be to deny them credit for the en­thu­si­asm and clev­er­ness of their play.

Eng­land got lucky against the Spring­boks. Here they traded on an equal foot­ing, hunt­ing and ham­mer­ing. There were blem­ishes but there was in­tent. Af­ter the mid-year slump when they lost five Tests in a row, Eng­land are back in the big boys’ ball game.

Sam Un­der­hill, the Bath open­side, was a con­stant pres­ence, smash­ing for­ward and grub­bing for ball. Un­der­hill was an in­jury stand-in for Tom Curry. On this ev­i­dence, Eng­land now have two top-drawer open­sides.

The line-out had been pro­duc­tive but Eng­land al­lowed New Zealand to get in among them in the sec­ond half with Brodie Re­tal­lick and Sam White­lock putting all their years of ex­pe­ri­ence, not to men­tion con­sid­er­able size, into do­ing a num­ber on Eng­land. Much is made of the danc­ing feet of the All Blacks, run­ning from ev­ery­where, yet Re­tal­lick is the mo­tor of the team, their churn­ing in­ner core.

The sec­ond-half line-out dis­par­ity was enough to tilt the balance with five go­ing astray. Dy­lan Hart­ley was re­placed at half-time by Jamie Ge­orge due to a prob­lem with his thumb. There will be scru­tiny, too, of Eng­land’s de­ci­sion to twice go for the line-out from penalty po­si­tions late in the match. Three points might have won the game. Given that Owen Far­rell had dropped a goal in the first half for only the third time in his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer, that too ought to have been in Eng­land’s minds in those fran­tic clos­ing stages. World Cups are won or lost on such mar­gins.

That said, Eng­land can take great heart from the way they took the game to the world cham­pi­ons. The con­di­tions made han­dling dif­fi­cult, as shown when the nor­mally im­pec­ca­ble Re­tal­lick fum­bled the kick-off. From there, Eng­land struck, a drive from the scrum al­low­ing Ben Youngs to see space wide and find the poacher-in-chief, Chris Ash­ton. The Sale wing was not go­ing to waste such an op­por­tu­nity four years af­ter his last start for Eng­land. In he went, div­ing low rather than AshS­plash­ing. Eight phases, 110 sec­onds – the per­fect start, only spoiled by Owen Far­rell’s con­ver­sion strik­ing the post from wide out.

The col­lec­tive ef­fort of Eng­land was em­phat­i­cally on show in the 24th minute, a swarm of white shirts in­clud­ing half the back line wrap­ping round

Maro Itoje ini­tially from a 10-me­tre li­ne­out and driv­ing over for Hart­ley to claim the touch­down. Far­rell con­verted to add to his dropped goal: 15-0. Twick­en­ham was in dream land.

There is no such thing as a com­fort­zone lead, though, against New Zealand. They have rolled back the stone from the seem­ing dead so of­ten that op­po­nents can never re­lax. So it proved. The All Blacks turned down a sim­ple three points from a penalty in front of the posts for a scrum. On the sec­ond set, it paid off as full-back Damian McKenzie ar­rowed on to an in­side ball from Beau­den Bar­rett to score. Bar­rett con­verted and added a penalty in first-half added time af­ter Far­rell duffed the restart: 15-10 at half-time.

New Zealand are mas­ters of the come­back. Their self-be­lief runs deep. That New Zealand knew they were in a rare old scrap was ev­i­denced by Bar­rett taking the op­por­tu­nity to drop a goal in the 46th minute, his first in 71 Tests.

New Zealand knew what they had to do – be direct, keep it tight, kick for po­si­tion, hus­tle Eng­land at the line-out. It may not be their nat­u­ral game but it has also been known to rain in New Zealand and they adapted. The pressure told, Eng­land in­fringed, Bar­rett kicked the goal and the All Blacks had their noses in front for the first time, 16-15.

The clock ticked, the crowd fid­geted and fret­ted. On came the re­place­ments, up went the ten­sion. Then came the TMO in­ter­ven­tion. It was a real choker for all those in white. No won­der the boos rang out at the fi­nal whis­tle.

Clutch mo­ment: Eng­land open­side Sam Un­der­hill dives over to score with five min­utes re­main­ing at Twick­en­ham, but the try was chalked off af­ter lock Court­ney Lawes was deemed to have been off­side

Win­ning feel­ing: New Zealand cel­e­brate as Eng­land slump in de­spair at the end

Slings and ar­rows: Chris Ash­ton dives over the line to give Eng­land the per­fect start (left); the Eng­land pack rum­ble over to give Dy­lan Hart­ley a try (top); Damian McKenzie plunges over by the posts af­ter a well-worked All Black move from a scrum (above); Court­ney Lawes charges down TJ Per­e­nara’s kick (right) but was ruled off­side

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