Mark the date in your rugby diary – November 10, 2018. That is the day England take on the All Blacks, in what will be the first match between the two nations for four years and six days.
It is an unusual period of drought in the international rugby calendar, and it is the one remaining shadow looming over England after the disaster of the 2015 World Cup.
England know they are good, because they have won two consecutive Six Nations Championships and 24 of their 25 games under Eddie Jones. That compares favourably even with New Zealand’s own outstanding record of 24 wins, two defeats and own draw since the last World Cup.
But despite the similarity on paper, England cannot truly be certain of the level they have reached until they play the World Champions. Games against New Zealand tend to open the road to self-assessment in a much more immediate and ruthless way than matches against other nations – especially given the (hopefully temporary) recent decline of the Wallabies and Springboks.
England under Stuart Lancaster enjoyed a positive glut of games against the All Blacks by way of contrast – six in the space of two years – including a tour of the Shaky Isles in June 2014. That tour remains the most competitive and enjoyable mid-year series in New Zealand in recent times, despite the administrative catastrophe which meant England were without 14 of their leading players for the first Test at Eden Park.
Games against New Zealand have a way of shining a light on the particular strengths and weakness of your players and systems in ultra high definition. All are shown up in black and white.
The Carisbrook ‘House of Pain’ may be no more, but that was no comfort to Luther Burrell, after his first experience of New Zealand-style speed and intensity on the part-synthetic grass, and under the covered glass dome at Forsyth Barr stadium. Back in 2014, the ghosts of Carisbrook were alive and well, and Luther still felt the traumatic suffering of his forebears in the changing sheds after the game.
One aspect which was spotlighted after the 2014 tour was England’s kicking game. The rate of return on high kicks to contest the ball in the series was poor, and it cost us two tries directly on New Zealand returns of Danny Care box-kicks in that crucial second Test in Dunedin (see the 48th and 63rd minutes):
Since then, great emphasis has been placed by first Lancaster and latterly Jones on the quality of the kick and chase. England began to pick their three best kickers at 9, 10 and 12 in the shape of Ben Youngs (or an improved Care), George Ford and Owen Farrell, and the threat of their kick chasers in the air, or in pursuit across the top of the ground – Johnny May, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly – came on in leaps and bounds.
It is the quality of England’s kicking game which really makes them tick, and without it their attacking play seldom scales great heights.
It was the kicking game which got them over the line against the challenge of Australia back in November last year, a game which I examined in this article.
The alertness of Youngs’ kicking through for Daly created England’s first try, and the precision of Care kicking through for Jonathan Joseph, and then Johnny May, finally finished the Wallabies off in the last ten minutes of the match.
Likewise, England’s kicking game, in similarly wet conditions, did for Wales on Saturday. Just as England targeted Bernard Foley in the backfield last November, so they went to work on inexperienced Rhys Patchell in the Welsh secondary over the weekend.
Patchell was pinpointed right from the opening whistle. Care exited with a box-kick down the right sideline from his own 22 in only the second minute of the match and Anthony Watson beat Patchell to the ball in the air. When the ball reached Farrell after the turnover, he had only one thing on his mind:
May has kept his width on the left and is signalling for the ball. A beautifully top-spun kick along the deck is the quickest and easiest way to get the ball to him, and that is the option Farrell chooses:
This is prototypical in the Jones era – when you have as much speed on the edge of the field as England possess, you create opportunities to use that speed as directly as possible.
Patchell continued to be given a rough time over on the left side of the Welsh secondary, losing control of the ball under pressure:
The overall effect was to erode the self-belief of a young player who had enjoyed his first Six Nations start in the fabled Welsh #10 jersey in Cardiff the previous weekend. As a result, he began to over-compensate on the return opportunities he was given:
The aerial torture for poor Patchell continued until he was finally substituted off the field in the 55th minute.
England, meanwhile, went on looking for ways to get the ball into the hands of their outside speed as quickly as possible, particularly to May’s side. The tendency of modern defences is to condense around the ball when numbers are relatively short, for example on turnovers of possession, at scrums:
Or after a long break – engineered needless to say by the kicking game! Ford first chips over the heads for Farrell to collect from first phase lineout:
Then immediately hooks a kick back across his shoulder for May wide on the left as the defence narrows by default:
When Warren Gatland replaced Patchell with George North for the final quarter, with Aucklander Gareth Anscombe moving into the #10 role and Josh Adams shifting to fullback, the complexion of the game changed dramatically.
Anscombe’s confidence hadn’t been eroded by a heavy high-ball attack, and he immediately showed why England had tended to kick away from his side:
The Welsh attack suddenly showed signs of life with Anscombe’s willingness to attack the line from first receiver:
More especially, Anscombe demonstrated typical New Zealand facility and fearlessness in running the ball back as the last man on kick returns. In the 61st minute of the game (see the highlight reel), he ran a long England kick back from his own 22 to find the English ‘triangle’ on chase fatally over-extended:
The space between the tip of the triangle (Farrell) and its base point on the right (Joe Launchbury) has grown too big and Launchbury can no longer cover the gap after Anscombe beats the first man.
Anscombe was able to set up a near-certain try-scoring opportunity on the left for Scott Williams, one which was only saved by an incredible cover tackle by England flanker Sam Underhill.
But the abiding question remains: how would Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett or Damian McKenzie fare against this kick-chase game? Would they do better than Anscombe? Would they be able to handle the likes of Watson, May and Daly in the air, match their speed across the ground and counter effectively against the chase?
Against New Zealand, England will be pitched against the best backfield in world rugby. It promises to be a titanic contest – if one which, at present, slightly favours the reignging World Champions.