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Sir Ian McGeechan: New Zealand should have lost by more

NZ Herald

It’s no exaggeration to say that England’s remarkable win over New Zealand was one of the best games of rugby I have ever seen.

In my opinion, it was comfortably England’s best performance of the professional era, and I’m still stunned by the way this extraordinary game unfolded. I had predicted England to win by five, but they utterly dominated the game in a way that wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard.

In a lifetime of watching the All Blacks, I’ve seen them beaten plenty of times, but I have never seen them so comprehensively outplayed. It is all the more remarkable because this is an excellent New Zealand side, but it floundered because the players so rarely find themselves in this position and struggled to work out clear alternatives. This was an 80-minute onslaught from England.

For England to inflict New Zealand’s first World Cup defeat in twelve years in that fashion, completely controlling the game from the kick-off to the final whistle, is unprecedented. This was a technical and tactical masterclass in which England had a complete appreciation of what they were trying to achieve. Eddie Jones, take a bow.

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Their attitude was exemplified at the final whistle. Of course, there were celebrations and an obvious sense of relief, but there was no punching of the air, no hint that they saw this as some sort of end goal, simply a recognition that they had only navigated one important staging point on the road to their final destination. I loved that.

While there was incredible tactical nuance to this win, the reasons for England’s victory can also be broken down into three key factors. The first was that they consistently won the collisions, especially up front where their pack was superb and forced a remarkable 16 turnovers. The second was a beautifully acute kicking game and aggressive kick-chase which allowed George Ford and Owen Farrell to turn the front foot ball provided by their forwards into match-winning field position. Thirdly, England’s linespeed, physicality and virtually flawless first-up tackling in defence left New Zealand playing on the back foot with nowhere to go.

It was a toxic mix for the All Blacks, who found themselves playing catch-up rugby throughout on the back foot, a combination they rarely – if ever – face.

The first two minutes – an opening passage of play that is as good as you will ever see – set the tone. England’s opening salvo of high tempo, heads-up running rugby carried out with remarkable accuracy was as unstoppable as it was compelling. The best team in the world watched on helplessly, unable to stop England’s juggernaut.

It was immediately apparent that England’s forwards were comfortable carrying the ball, and were desperate to recycle quickly, even if it meant moving the ball before scrum-half Ben Youngs’ arrival, a tactic which led to Manu Tuilagi’s try. That combination was crucial, as was England’s domination of the breakdown, where Steve Hansen’s decision to play Scott Barrett in the back row proved to be a mistake. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were once again outstanding, as was Maro Itoje. His partner in the boiler room, the excellent Courtney Lawes, put in several big tackles in the wide channels, where England’s breakdown work benefitted hugely from Tuilagi’s willingness to commit to rucks in a way that was reminiscent of Brian O’Driscoll in his pomp.

England’s big men won the battle of the breakdown and also dominated the battle of the gainline. Recycling ball at speed, every time they took the ball into contact against a heavier New Zealand pack, they invariably made ground as their variety of play and offloads kept the All Blacks guessing. England were comfortable going wide – it was Elliot Daly’s break outside Richie Mo’unga which made the first try – but their use of the front row as ball-carriers was also particularly effective. They punched holes with ball in hand but all three also offloaded, featured in loop plays, and explored a range of out-the-back options.

I was incredibly impressed with tighthead Kyle Sinckler, whose handling, mobility and discipline were streets ahead of a year or two ago. A former hothead, his self-discipline was emblematic of all that was good about England’s forwards, although it helped them that there were so few strength-sapping scrums, especially in the opening 20 minutes.

England’s domination of the gainline and breakdown put them on the front foot, and was the foundation of this victory, but their use of that quick possession was also exceptional. England’s kicking game was streets ahead of New Zealand, who invariably kicked off the back foot and under pressure. England won the territorial battle because by kicking off the front foot they dictated where the New Zealand back three had to go. It was not just the variety of positions from where they kicked, but also when they kicked – not just first phase but the fifth or sixth phase, too – which is so difficult for defences to anticipate.

Ben Youngs’ box kicks were invariably contestable, with England’s kick-chase putting New Zealand’s back three under huge pressure, but Ford and Farrell’s positional kicks were also spot-on. Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece and George Bridge were often going backwards to claim the ball, and were either hemmed in by the touchline or forced to kick to touch before the white wave crashed onto them. After ceding so much territory and being turned over so often in the first half, in the second half they fell into the same trap as Australia and tried running from their own 22.

The killer statistic from this game is that England kicked 37 times and made 882 metres, while New Zealand kicked 28 times but made just 577 metres because England were on the front foot, New Zealand on the back foot.

Throw in England’s Saracens-style linespeed in defence (especially from Tuilagi), their discipline, their impressive percentage of first-up tackles made, and excellent scramble defence, and you can see why New Zealand were so comprehensively beaten as England kept the scoreboard ticking over.

I suspect Eddie Jones will want to face Wales in the final, and in the second semifinal I believe Warren Gatland’s men will shade South Africa – 18-17, with Wales kicking six penalties to the Springboks’ three tries sounds about right. Where South Africa would have the size to stop England on the gainline, I believe England now have too much firepower and confidence for a Wales side who look exhausted and are missing Liam Williams.

Either way, if the final is even half the quality of England’s semifinal win over the All Blacks, it will be quite some game

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and is republished with permission.

New Zealand fans were so shocked after the game, they couldn’t take anything away from a dominant England performance:

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Sir Ian McGeechan: New Zealand should have lost by more