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If it was a story from medieval times, the characters would be easy to paint. Sir Brodie Retallick is the dreaded black knight, the undisputed champion of the joust, roaming the realm from tournament to tournament, taking on all-comers from far and wide.
The man who would be king is ‘Prince’ Maro Itoje, the young trending challenger. He shares the cover of The Tatler magazine with the granddaughter of the Duke of Kent.
He is picked to captain the England under 20 team just after leaving that school of Lords and Baronets in North London, Harrow.
As a pupil, he is taught by the greatest of itinerant wizards in the four realms, Wayne Smith.
Prince Maro is being groomed to ascend to the throne of the big men in rugby and, in due course, he will probably become captain of his country.
He and Sir Brodie crossed lances once before, at the British and Irish Lions tournament in 2017, with the match finishing an honourable draw.
On this occasion, however, there will be no shadow of a doubt about who is the victor. After breaking a lance in the first stanza, Sir Brodie picks Prince Maro clean off his horse in the second.
Maro Itoje is left to walk back to his tent with dents in his armour and some bruises to his pride as Sir Brodie raises the tournament favour, the Edmund Hillary pennant, high in the air in triumph…
That is the short-hand of the clash of the big men at Twickenham last Saturday.
In Wales, I grew up amid a particular affection for them, because, as a rule. they were in short supply.
There was no shortage of props, strong and wide enough to support a coalpit tunnel all day long – but the airborne lineout leaper was a rare bird.
In successive decades, Roy John in the 50’s, Brian Price and Delme Thomas in the 60’s, Allan Martin in the 70’s and Bob Norster in the 80’s represented this singular strain and they were prized.
Alun-Wyn Jones is the latest in a long line of special big men who will be inducted to the hall of fame when he retires sometime after the 2019 World Cup.
Roy John’s standing jump enabled him to hang like a monkey from a rugby crossbar 10 and a half feet off the ground. Allan Martin could take two-handed catches in the lineout and kick goals with equal facility. He was the undertaker of goal-kickers, walking into the ball off two funeral paces with shoulders hunched in respect.
He could toe-poke the ball over from 50 metres, launching it clean out of the universal Talbot Athletic ground mud like a shot from a mortar.
Brodie Retallick represents the very best of the best among rugby’s big men, translated to the modern professional era. His combination of work rate and skills outside the set-piece are unmatched, but they never come at the cost of attention to his core duties in the first phase, and that balance is what marks him out.
With the rain pouring down from the heavens at Twickenham and New Zealand spotting England a 15-point lead only 25 minutes into the game, it was Retallick more anyone else who hauled his team back into a contest that was always going to come down to better set-piece fundamentals.
As they proved against Australia at the end of 2017, England are an excellent wet weather side. They enjoy probably the best kicking game in the world, with halves Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell supported by the long-distance left boots of Henry Slade and Elliott Daly in the outside backs.
Up until Saturday, they could also boast one of the best two lineouts – based around the Saracens core of ‘finishing’ hooker Jamie George, second rows Itoje and George Kruis and coaching schemer Steve Borthwick.
England used the strength of their kicking game and lineout to dominate most of the first half.
They scored their second try directly from a lineout drive on Maro Itoje, at 0:40 on the highlight reel here;
They won their own three throws in comfort, while either disrupting or forcing turnovers on three of New Zealand’s six feeds.
England’s lineout plan, hatched by Borthwick and implemented by the play-caller Kruis, was to thrown away from the caller (who typically receives much of the opponent’s attention) and on to either Itoje at the front or Brad Shields at the back.
In the first instance, England establishes Itoje at the front of the line. In the second, they use Itoje as a decoy and throw to Shields at the tail.
Not once did George Kruis call the throw to himself and, as a result, one of the best defensive lineout readers in the world (Kieran Read) was left out of play.
But the All Blacks are a quick study at lineout time, and things changed dramatically after the break.
New Zealand won all of their own eight throws and seven of them were uncontested. They dug into the England feed with a vengeance, turning over five of England’s ten throws in the second period.
With England’s bench front row coming under increasing pressure at scrum-time – albeit pressure that went unrewarded by referee Jerome Garces – England’s set-piece platform was steadily dismantled as the second period unwound.
What changed at the lineout?
Firstly, Jerome Garces’ refereeing of the one-metre gap between the two teams deteriorated to the point where it was non-existent.
In the first two examples, there is a clear gap. Now look at this lineout in the 55th minute – Jamie George’s first throw after coming on for co-captain Dylan Hartley.
Although Itoje still wins the ball, Garces short-armed George for dummying the throw. The real problem for the England hooker was the ever-contracting space between the two sides.
As the gap diminished, so did George’s confidence in his ability to find the target.
That was Retallick’s first steal against Itoje. The anxiety on George’s face is plain for all to see, and Read is back in the game as Retallick’s rear lifter.
The bench replacements clearly worked out to the All Blacks’ advantage, with George feeling the pressure on delivery and Scott Barrett presenting another genuine threat to the England throw after entering proceedings for Liam Squire.
The diminishing gap allowed the New Zealand jumpers to use their favourite technique, getting slightly ahead of the intended receiver and inserting the inside arm into the space between the hands of the intended receiver.
In the first instance, Barrett gets his hand in between Brad Shields’ arms and upsets his ball control, forcing a knock-on. In the second, Sir Brodie is clearly ahead of Prince Maro and picks the ball off cleanly.
As the second period unfolded, and with England apparently unwilling to select any other target than Itoje or Shields, so Retallick’s domination of Itoje snow-balled.
In a rather bizarre adjustment, bench second row Charlie Ewels appeared to replace George Kruis – not only at lock, but also as the man calling the lineouts.
He was not effective at changing a plan which had clearly been rumbled by Retallick and the All Blacks.
The throw went to Itoje at the front, Read saw the play and got into the back-lifting space ahead of Ewels, and Retallick stole the ball.
It might as well have been New Zealand’s own throw to the lineout by that stage in proceedings.
England did not lose the game because of Sam Underhill’s disallowed try, which was rightly denied for offside on the original block-down by Courtney Lawes. They lost because their set-piece platform was first eroded, then destroyed by New Zealand.
All the cards dealt before the game fell out in England’s favour.
They were playing at home with little or no expectation of winning the match against the world champions.
Eddie Jones had been able to plan for the match for three years in advance, while the deluge which engulfed the stadium before the game played into England’s hands, and their excellence in wet weather conditions.
In the event, England’s kicking game did not desert them, but their set-piece emphatically did.
While Jerome Garces chose not to reward the developing Kiwi superiority at the scrum, he did allow them to close the gap in the lineout and compete effectively on the England throw.
The Saracens core of England’s lineout – one of the foundations of English success since Eddie Jones took over in 2016 – was first shaken, then stirred to distraction.
The All Blacks worked out where England were going to throw the ball and brought on Scott Barrett to provide an extra threat. They heaped pressure on a new hooker in Jamie George and Retallick got the measure of Itoje.
Would England’s chances have improved in better weather conditions, or at a neutral venue? No. This was a lost opportunity for the home side, make no bones about it – and one which confirmed the erosion of English set-piece values under Eddie Jones.
In the individual contest between England’s talisman Maro Itoje and Brodie Retallick, there was only one winner.
‘The Guzzler’ took all of the spoils, leaving England’s prince a road to travel before he becomes king of the big men.
At the current rate of progress, Ireland’s James Ryan may just get there before him – and his clash with Sir Brodie will be something to behold next weekend in Dublin.