Be­ware rope-a dope tac­tics

Eng­land must be wary of the All Blacks sucker punch on counter at­tack

The Rugby Paper - - Analysis -

IT is time for a re­al­ity stock­take ahead of Eng­land’s fouryear wait to play New Zealand. De­spite yes­ter­day’s re­mark­able vic­tory over the Spring­boks, this is not the Red Rose side brim­ful of con­fi­dence that, with Ed­die Jones newly in­stalled as coach, went on a 17-match win­ning streak in 2016-17 that in­cluded a Grand Slam and a sum­mer tour white­wash of the Wallabies.

In­stead, Jones has cob­bled to­gether an in­jury-de­pleted ex­per­i­men­tal Eng­land side, with an in­ex­pe­ri­enced pack and a reshuf­fled back­line, to face an All Black dou­ble World Cup­win­ning crew which has vir­tu­ally a clean bill of health. Not only is Steve Hansen’s side mas­sively more ex­pe­ri­enced, it ar­rives with an­other South­ern Hemi­sphere Rugby Cham­pi­onship ti­tle un­der its belt, hav­ing turned the tour­na­ment into a New Zealand mo­nop­oly.

Where the All Blacks have main­tained their stel­lar stan­dards over the past three years, with the only blem­ishes com­ing in the form of losses to Ire­land (2016), the Lions and Aus­tralia (2017), and South Africa (2018), Eng­land’s have slipped alarm­ingly.

Our most re­cent sight­ing of Eng­land un­der Jones was a two-one se­ries de­feat in South Africa, with vic­tory in the fi­nal Test com­ing only af­ter Spring­bok coach Rassie Eras­mus rested key play­ers with the out­come al­ready de­cided.

It is a re­flec­tion of Eng­land’s cur­rent state of flux that two of the main con­trib­u­tors to that win in Cape Town are no longer in the se­lec­tion mix, due to Joe Mar­ler’s vol­un­tary re­tire­ment from Test duty and Danny Cipri­ani be­ing sur­plus to Jones’ re­quire­ments.

Be­fore the se­ries loss in South Africa came a wretched fifth place fin­ish in the Six Na­tions af­ter de­feats by Scot­land, France and Ire­land.

Even so, many Eng­land play­ers are talked up by their team-mates, and in some parts of the me­dia – espe­cially so­cial me­dia – as world­beat­ers. The over­hyp­ing of Eng­land’s rugby side ahead of this Au­tumn se­ries is an un­wanted im­port from foot­ball. From 2001 to 2010 Eng­land foot­ball’s so-called “golden gen­er­a­tion” had a few highs but over­all they were deeply dis­ap­point­ing on the in­ter­na­tional stage, fail­ing reg­u­larly to live up to their billing.

English Rugby Union is in dan­ger of falling into the same trap with play­ers who are ha­bit­u­ally in­con­sis­tent at in­ter­na­tional level, or un­avail­able through in­jury, be­ing touted as world class – and novices who have yet to prove them­selves at the high­est level be­ing given the same ac­co­lade.

Based on Eng­land’s form over the last six months any­one who comes to the con­clu­sion that Eng­land will beat New Zealand on Satur­day at Twick­en­ham is do­ing so on the flim­si­est of ev­i­dence – whereas there is an avalanche of rea­sons why they will not.

Let’s get real. To be­gin with the All Blacks are su­pe­rior in vir­tu­ally every de­part­ment. This New Zealand out­fit can lay claim to hav­ing de­vel­oped the most dev­as­tat­ing counter-at­tack ever seen. On top of that their scrum and line-out is stronger, their front five for­wards are bet­ter run­ners and han­dlers, and their back row is more ac­com­plished in every facet.

If you add to the mix the elu­sive bril­liance of Beau­den Bar­rett and Ben Smith, as well as the fin­ish­ing prow­ess of Rieko Ioane, there is an ar­gu­ment to be made that, for once, Eng­land would do bet­ter not to turn up.

This refers to the fa­mous state­ment by John Pullin, the im­per­turbable Eng­land cap­tain of the dol­drum years in the 1970s, that, “we might not be any good, but at least we turn up”. The Bris­tol hooker was re­flect­ing on his side’s de­feat by Ire­land dur­ing his post­match din­ner speech in Dublin in the wake of an RFU de­ci­sion to ig­nore IRA threats and hon­our their 1973 Five Na­tions fix­ture. Yet, as Pullin demon­strated clearly by lead­ing Eng­land’s sup­posed no­hop­ers to an epic vic­tory over New Zealand in Auck­land later that year, there is al­ways that glim­mer of light in the dark­ness. In Pullin’s case it was more like head­lights on full beam be­cause he lined up against the All Blacks seven times – for the 1971 Lions, the Bar­bar­ians, and Eng­land – and lost only twice.

More re­cently, the Manu Tuilagi-in­spired Eng­land vic­tory over the All Blacks in 2012 demon­strated that sport is still ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing mo­ments of shock and awe to con­found the odds. That 38-21 win was the zenith of Stu­art Lan­caster’s ten­ure be­fore the de­cline into World Cup ig­nominy in 2015.

If there is to be any hope of a tri­umph to rank along­side it, and be­come a cat­a­lyst for Jones to get back on track, then the un­proven, pi­lot Eng­land side he has se­lected will have to be bet­ter in every in­di­vid­ual bat­tle on the pitch. It has to bull­doze the wide­spread Kiwi be­lief, and mine too, that none of the Red Rose side would get into the New Zealand start­ing 15.

“NZ can lay claim to hav­ing de­vel­oped the most dev­as­tat­ing counter-at­tack ever seen”

“Eng­land will have to de­liver a game for-the-ages, and those do not come around very of­ten”

Above all, this Eng­land team have to defy the pre­dic­tions of them be­ing out of their depth to pro­duce a game of such er­ror-free power and fo­cus that it sur­passes any­thing they achieved in their tri­umphal march in Jones’ first year in charge.

The most ex­cep­tional el­e­ment of Eng­land’s 2012 tri­umph was that they made vir­tu­ally no mis­takes, while ap­ply­ing such in­ces­sant pres­land sure on New Zealand that it forced them to fluff their lines.

Where New Zealand have taken their game to a higher plane is that they are now at their most dan­ger­ous when op­po­nents are fully com­mit­ted in at­tack.

What was no­tice­able about New Zealand’s 37-20 Bledis­loe Cup vic­tory over Aus­tralia in Yokohama last week­end – their third over Michael Cheika’s side this sea­son – is their pre­ci­sion and ruth­less­ness when their op­po­nents go on the of­fen­sive is be­come ex­tra­or­di­nary.

The All Blacks use the rope-a-dope tac­tic of wait­ing un­til the op­po­si­tion punch them­selves out – and when they force an er­ror from the at­tack­ing side, bang! Ir­re­spec­tive of where it is on the pitch they in­stantly go into over­drive, and the qual­ity of their de­ci­sion-mak­ing and skills flips the pres­sure switch turn­ing de­fence into lethal counter-at­tack.

This was high­lighted by match stats which in­di­cated that in most re­spects the two teams were level-peg­ging. There was noth­ing in it be­tween the All Blacks and Wallabies where me­tres made, car­ries, de­fend­ers beaten, clean breaks, passes and of­floads were con­cerned.

How­ever, there were two ar­eas where New Zealand were streets ahead – and they are what make the All Blacks so hard to beat. The first was that they outscored the Wallabies by five tries to two, and the sec­ond that they con­ceded only seven turn-overs to Aus­tralia’s 20.

In de­fence New Zealand are re­lent­less in pres­sur­ing their op­po­nents into con­ced­ing turn-overs, and vo­ra­cious in pun­ish­ing them. So, when Is­rael Fo­lau was snared late in the sec­ond-half af­ter try­ing to run the ball from deep, and threw a wild pass out of con­tact on halfway which landed in Ben Smith’s hands, his pace and beau­ti­fully bal­anced run­ning did the rest.

Their sup­port play and pass­ing is of such high qual­ity that if the All Blacks make a clean break it is al­most cer­tain they will score. The speed with which they re­act means they flood through the chan­nel, giv­ing the car­rier and sup­port run­ners mul­ti­ple op­tions.

There were two ex­am­ples of this in Yokohama, and both sig­ni­fied how New Zealand have turned the scrum into their lat­est at­tack­ing weapon. The speed of the hooker’s strike and the slick trans­fer­ence at the base be­tween the New Zealand No.8 and cap­tain, Kieran Read, and scrumhalf TJ Per­e­nara saw a text­book move un­fold mid­way through the sec­ond half.

As Read picked up and passed to Per­e­nara on the open­side, the scrumhalf ’s switch pass found Beau­den Bar­rett break­ing to­wards the blind­side – and his pass hit Ioane run­ning at full tilt down the tram­lines. A com­bi­na­tion of Ioane’s run­ning line and speed saw him burst through two tack­les be­fore giv­ing the equally rapid Bar­rett a re­turn pass and clear run-in.

New Zealand rubbed salt into Aussie wounds in the last three min­utes from an­other scrum, this time just in­side the Wal­laby half. An­other quick strike saw Aaron Smith send Richie Mo’unga – Bar­rett’s young fly­half ri­val – on a hard, straight line up the mid­dle. When Ben Smith fol­lowed him and took the off­load to punch down the same straight chan­nel Aus­tralia were reel­ing, and Aaron Smith and Bar­rett, with a pin­point through-the-legs pass, put Ioane in.

Teams with great skills make it look sim­ple, but all the scrums came from Aus­tralian er­rors – the one above fol­low­ing a dropped restart by lock Izack Rodda.

Eng­land can­not af­ford to give the ball away like Aus­tralia did, and any chances they get must be taken. They have to recog­nise that with New Zealand there is no respite, and that they are play­ing a side which has been coached to push every bound­ary – not least the laws.

In the first-half Read scored from what looked like a text-book No.8 pick-up and blind­side drive from an at­tack­ing five me­tre scrum. How­ever, a sec­ond look showed that Per­e­nara had po­si­tioned him­self next to the scrum tun­nel with his back turned to screen Read from the view of the Wal­laby blind­side Ned Hani­gan.

When Read went for the line the un­sighted Hani­gan was too slow off the side of the scrum to pre­vent the All Black skip­per from touch­ing down. It was the soft­est of tries for a side as well-versed in sharp prac­tice as they are in sump­tu­ous skills.

Eng­land have beaten New Zealand de­spite over­whelm­ing odds be­fore, and they can again – but to do so against a cham­pion All Black side in mint con­di­tion, they will have to be every bit as sharp and skil­ful, and play with manic de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Eng­land will have to de­liver a game for-the-ages, and by def­i­ni­tion those do not come around very of­ten.

PIC­TURES: Getty Im­ages

Splash­down: Chris Ash­ton scores dur­ing Eng­land’s 38-21 vic­tory over New Zealand in 2012 Ath­leti­cism: Maro Itoje Sp Rie sco Bla Au

ed of strike: ko Ioane res for the All cks against tralia

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