Beware rope-a dope tactics
England must be wary of the All Blacks sucker punch on counter attack
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.
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