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The three fixable factors behind Eddie Jones' England stagnation

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Wrong place, wrong time: Red Roses rotten final a case of 'black magic'

By Ben Smith
(Photos by MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images and Greg Bowker/Getty Images)

The cruel beauty of sport was on show in the World Cup final as the energetic and loveable Black Ferns pulled off a fairytale win while the equally classy Red Roses were left with heartbreak.

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Pulsating, dramatic, gut-wrenching, miraculous, unfair, are all valid descriptions of the final. Superlatives to describe the spectacle don’t do the game justice.

The Red Roses were incredibly heroic and magnanimous in defeat and given an awful reminder that life is unfair. Things go wrong and all the planning in the world can’t help.

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They were dealt a bad hand, a fate-altering moment of epic proportion when Lydia Thompson collided with Portia Woodman.

World Rugby’s window-dressed solution to the concussion problem handed the Black Ferns a golden reprieve and evened up a contest that would not have been, with a 15 on 14 contest for most of the night.

Perhaps it was written in the stars. The Black Ferns were just a team of destiny and this is how they were going to pull it off. Fate conspired to make it happen.

Caroline Drouin’s sprayed penalty and then Thompson’s red were acts of divine influence. At the spiritual home of New Zealand Rugby, don’t discount it.

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The pre-match haka ritual from the Black Ferns is a challenge to the opposition, but it is also a call to the ancestors to help win the battle. It seems they were listening above Eden Park.

No one wants to see Portia Woodman left in the state she was. But a red card for an execution error does not, nor ever will, fix the problem.

This is the twisted outcome you get from poor policy that has yet to prove that it makes the game any safer.

A punishment previously reserved for malicious foul play has been ransacked for a virtue signalling crusade. We want a safer game, but hard line punishments for genuine mistakes do nothing for that cause.

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Prohibition has never worked in society, and even less so when there is no intent in the act.

If every player could suddenly execute the tackle safely, they surely would. The fact is, they can’t. It is not a controllable event at high speeds and errors will occur.

Players are only human and should be treated as such, even the so-called perpetrators who become the scapegoat in this deluded exercise.

One team is left materially disadvantaged as a result, on Saturday it was the Red Roses in the biggest game of their lives no less.

Losing Thompson was absolutely critical for the Roses a number of reasons, aiding the Black Ferns in untold ways.

Aside from the attrition factor that would play an inevitable part, the weakest vulnerability for the Roses just got magnified tenfold.

The Ferns were always going to target the fringes of the Roses, where they had leaked tries in previous clashes, now England were down a winger on the edge.

When Stacey Fluhler rounded the corner past centre Emily Scarratt less than twenty seconds into the second half, she ran through the ghost of Thompson’s vacant channel.

Fluhler needed every millimetre of grass down that vacant channel, firstly to get around Scarratt and then to score once Renee Holmes gave her the return pass.

It was a spine tingling moment of magic from the Black Ferns which set Eden Park into delirium, erasing a huge deficit on either side of halftime to shock the Roses.

It was also largely possible due to Thompson’s absence.

Again, perhaps it was all just the hand of destiny paving the way for the Ferns to do the impossible. The Ferns had the wherewithal to take advantage.

England’s own attacking game seemed to be derailed once they lost their winger. In the early stages with Hollie Aitchison at 12 the Roses had a playmaking link to release their own outside backs.

With their first raid out to the left barely two minutes into the game saw speedster Abby Dow chow down metres along the left flank with a pinpoint pass from Aitchison sweeping out the back in the movement.

Moments later fullback Ellie Kildunne glided over on the opposite corner as England went wide back to the other side.

Once they lost Thompson, there was no desire, nor reason to use width. They had to preserve energy for the uphill battle ahead and an expansive Roses’ game from that point was not on the table.

Having a playmaker at 12 in Aitchison was rendered useless. England’s options were limited and the Ferns knew that.

New Zealand played the contest far more intelligently in the second half after erasing the sizeable deficit, as halfback Kendra Cocksedge took control of the decision-making and plugged the corners to turn the England pack around.

With a lone defender in the backfield and one less member of the Roses back three to cover that space, Cocksedge made the right decisions to kick and Thompson’s absence was put under the spotlight further.

The Ferns pinned the Roses deep and forced them to exit frequently, knowing they would never run it wide, even in midfield zones.

England’s maul started to falter midway through the second half as the Ferns bench helped disarmed it for the first time with a key sack turnover around halfway.

Another try down Thompson’s flank came when reserve prop Krystal Murray barged through England’s halfback coming across in cover. Cocksedge had spotted a four on one down the under-resourced short side.

The home side turned their building territorial advantage into three second half tries, the last of which was a stunning piece of play from the Black Ferns midfielders.

The space in behind England’s line continued to appeal, with Theresa Fitzgerald threading a perfect grubber in behind.

Guess where? In behind the missing Thompson’s right wing spot with fullback Kildunne up in the line defending. Another piece of Fluhler magic later, the Ferns had the lead again for the last time.

To even be in with a chance to win at the end shows how good of a side England are. However, everyone knew the rolling maul was coming. Joanah Ngan-Woo’s hand will be revered in Ferns’ lore for disrupting that line out.

England beating the Black Ferns in front of a packed Eden Park, on New Zealand soil, in a World Cup final?

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It may have been what should have happened based on current records, stats and form. On probability it should have happened. But to any Kiwi, it just never sounded right. Some way, some how, the Ferns would win.

Desperate to restore their mana, with the support of the country finally behind them, they became a team of destiny and the impossible was made possible by belief and aided by perhaps by what you call divine intervention or ‘luck’.

An uncontrollable force that plays a part in everything. The Ferns asked the ancestors above for it when they did their haka, in an indirect sense, and they got it when Thompson was red carded.

If you try to explain the outcome of this game by rhyme or reason, you will be lost. It is easier to be guided by mythology here to make sense of it.

The Red Roses didn’t deserve the ending they got, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time for a dose of ‘black magic’.

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