OKAY, I’ll put my hand up and admit: ‘I never saw that coming.’
England’s steam-rollering of the All Black machine was extraordinary to watch from the comfort of a Cornish sofa.
Yet, while I was always expecting the onslaught of several New Zealand tries in a matter of minutes, such is their skillset and mindset, I am not waxing as lyrical as most about the Red Rose performance.
Yes, we created chances galore against the best side in the world, and, bar a dreadful throw in on our own ball which gifted them a try, shut them out.
But how many points did we leave out there?
Johnny May, the hero of the hour when he ghosted past Ben Smith and Co at Twickenham all those years ago, seemed hesitant at times. The fact Scott Barrett chased him down and caused him to track back inside suggests that maybe his leg issues were holding him back.
A fit May, the guy we’ve all come to love, would have pinned his ears back and flown to the try line, surely?
Bar Manu Tuilagi’s fine try, a team effort rather than individual, and the two disallowed tries, we butchered several chances, either ignoring the mis-match or fumbling the ball. Yes, we were playing the mighty All Blacks, the team with the best win percentage in the history of union, but if we want to be best we have to perform to our best. That will mark this vintage out as the best ever.
Beating the All Blacks is special. Having done it, for the first time, in a world cup match is special. Having done it to clinch a place in Saturday’s World Cup final is special.
But what if we could have scored those three, four, maybe even five or six other tries? What a statement that would have been on the world stage.
The one we made was pretty damn fantastic, but I, like Eddie Jones, the England boss, always want as near to 100 per cent as possible.
Moreso in the professional age, given that running, passing, tackling and kicking is what these guys do for a living.
I felt the refereeing decisions to disallow the England tries were the correct ones. The ‘crossing’ ahead of Sam Underhill’s touch down was clear to see. Although I’d like to see it reffed consistently across the board, not just when points are at stake.
The second disallowed try was harsh for me, but again absolutely spot on. It was almost a forensic examination by the TMO looking for something to keep the ABs in the game. I’ve not seen that before and given some of the TMO decisions in this very tournament it felt awkward. It wasn’t a try, clearly, but we haven’t had that level of consistency in TMO calls.
I have been a vocal critic of Tuilagi in the past. When he first arrived on the international scene I felt he was a bulldozer but one who largely played for himself. His passing was poor, his vision often lacking and perhaps believing a little too much in the hype around him.
Saturday saw a true centre’s performance. He passed well, had great vision in attack and defence and supported his team-mates tirelessly. Okay, he still can’t kick, but he’s become indispensable. He’s proved his supporters right and detractors, like me, wrong. Well done, Manu.
Likewise, I’ve been critical of Ben Youngs. I’ve not found him to be the scrum half England deserve for a while now. He takes too long at the breakdown, waiting for the perfect ball, he kicks away too much and often poorly and appears sluggish compared to what we’ve seen of him in the past.
On Saturday, he gave a performance rolling back the years and fully justified Jones’ faith in him. Another one I’ve got wrong.
Which bring me to Owen Farrell. I’m not a fan. He’s either the best 10 or he’s not, because, for me, he’s not a centre. I felt he was kept in the team for his kicking and attitude. Dissect matches and he’s often missing tackles he should be making at 12. He doesn’t often look to run through traffic and is too quick to use the good ball he’s fed to kick possession away.
His tackle technique and speed to anger is also a major concern for me.
Except on Saturday he proved me wrong. There was one silly head high wafted attempt at a tackle, which thankfully missed its mark, but he tackled brilliantly otherwise. He ran everywhere and, with ball in hand, made several breaks. Where has this version of Farrell been hiding?
And yet again, hands up, on this performance, I was wrong about him.
There was so much to cheer, but I still feel there is room for improvement.
The handling, as I’ve said.
There were times when we looked devoid of ideas with ball in hand, flinging out passes to men standing still. Rugby is a go-forward game. If there’s no pass on, don’t force it. Take the ball into contact and recycle.
I’d like to see more players running onto the ball rather than accelerating once they have possession.
Given the superhuman effort they put in, that might sound harsh. But it was always the hallmark of the greatest teams and greatest players. Pass to David Duckham on the run, or John Carleton or Rory Underwood and get ready to take the conversion. Athletics and biomechanics tell us that the acceleration phase of any sprint is about getting our bulk moving, but we get quicker as we go past that first ten yards. Think about Tuilagi getting a pass after running ten yards in support and bosh, wait for the fireworks.
Some of the kicking was aimless and straight down the AB’s throats. Yes, I know you don’t give the ball to Beauden Barrett in space as a rule, but even he struggled against the white tackling wall.
It still seemed pointless to me.
Likewise, the decision to call up Elliot Daly’s howitzer boot for a penalty kick just beyond the halfway line. Even if it had gone over, I felt a statement would have been to go for the corner and an England lineout. Mentally, I felt it said that ‘we know it’s going to be tough and we’ll take anything on offer’. Normally, I’d agree, but we had bested them in all areas. Turning the screw would have been a better option for me.
The World Cup final is another day, another game. England need to improve to avoid the Boks springing a surprise – given the their semi-final performances. The refereeing group needs to improve or maintain consistency.
If both teams play like they did this weekend, England should win. If England can step it up a little more, addressing the fumbles, the forced passes, aimless kicks and having May fully fit and raring to go, it won’t matter how much the South Africans can improve.
Because I don’t think we’ve yet seen the perfect beast that Eddie has been building.