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
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