Ewen McKenzie made an insightful comment this week, responding to questions about Will Skelton’s selection for the Wallabies final test against France.
“Everyone obviously talks about his size, but I have been more impressed with his skill touches, the ability to know when to take the line on, when to pass and create opportunities for others,” McKenzie said of Skelton.
“I have said for a few years now that the thing that defines the All Blacks now is the forwards’ contribution to passing in the game.
“At the All Blacks, their forwards may make up to 25 per cent of passes in a game. Most other countries are around the 12 per cent mark.”
Closer viewing of the second Test between England and New Zealand provides ample demonstration of that point of difference separating the All Blacks from the rest, plus a genuine effort and desire by England to emulate their rivals.
So much more is expected of the All Blacks’ tight five now. They need strength, flexibility, technique and power to fulfil their core duties, plus aerobic fitness and speed to get to breakdowns and dexterity to catch and pass under pressure.
The buildup to the All Blacks’ second try showcases the range of skills from the forwards.
From the New Zealand restart, England kicked deep and Julian Savea attacked but was unable to regather the ball from his chip kick. England counterattacked and Dane Coles spot-tackled Geoff Parling and then immediately got up and drove Joe Launchbury back in another strong tackle.
A few phases later a great clean out on Dylan Hartley by Coles set up the blindside break from Aaron Smith into the England 22.
With New Zealand on attack, England effected a turnover but Brodie Retallick won the ball back, launching another back line attack through the hands of five jerseys.
Then from the ensuing ruck, there was a beautiful piece of skill from Owen Franks, who caught and passed in one motion to Sam Whitelock. From the next ruck, the ball was moved through the hands ending in a lovely one-handed round-the-corner pass from Jerome Kaino to an unmarked Savea.
The forwards certainly didn’t act alone in setting up the try, but the majority of significant moments in the buildup definitely came from them.
When you watch the All Blacks play, you notice how frequently the numbers three, four and five receive the ball as first and second receiver from rucks, and how well they catch and pass under pressure on the advantage line.
Their patterns of play often requires their hooker, number eight and blindside flanker to keep their width on the edges of the field to link or act as wings.
It’s a game plan that requires forwards to be comfortable on the ball and just as adept at manipulating an overlap in confined space as the backs. It should be noted that of all the handling errors the All Blacks have committed so far this series, it is not their tight five who are guilty.
England employed their tight five more conventionally as midfield and decoy runners, although hooker Rob Webber can be found roaming on the wings using his speed and handling skills to good effect. However, rarely will you find Launchbury, Parling and David Wilson acting as first or second receiver on attack.
Despite these structural differences, England has evolved their game beyond the stereotypes held of them in the southern hemisphere. They attack with width, inventiveness and want to play at pace, but they’re unused to playing at the sustained pace of the All Blacks.
The ball was in play for long passages last week, with both teams adopting a positive attitude to attack. But the stresses of continuous running on the England forwards started to affect their skills and support lines.
The timestamps from these consecutive passages of play late in the first half and the duration the ball was in play highlights how far out of their comfort zone some of these English players were pushed on Saturday.
31m 23s – 33m 29s
34m 41s – 36m 18s
37m 38s – 39m 50s (Ben Smith tackle on Tuilagi)
And again in the second half:
40m 55s – 43m (first try scored by New Zealand)
47m 22s – 49m 6s (second try scored by New Zealand)
50m 53s – 51m 56s
52m 56s – 53m 40s
55m 37s – 56m 34s
57m 05s – 58m (Farrell yellow card, Beauden Barrett penalty)
63m 20s – 64m (Third try scored by New Zealand)
Two aspects were key to the All Blacks retaining possession and forcing the pace in the second half. They were winning the restarts giving England no opportunity to gain easy metres and apply pressure, and they were finding and creating holes in their defensive line with greater ease.
The first Test was much closer than the margin suggests and last week’s defeat is larger than the one point difference. But the manner in which the All Blacks forwards increased their tempo, their support play and skill execution under pressure and fatigue was a salutary lesson for England and the rest of their opposition.
But if England learn from it, then this tour will have been invaluable for them in realising their desire to overtake the All Blacks as the number one team and win next year’s World Cup.