All credit to New Zealand for not blaming the virus in the team or end-of-year-tiredness for their loss at the hands of a committed England team.
The All Blacks players looked more than a bit pale and lethargic as they entered the field and even the Haka lacked its normal spark.
Punctiliously I don’t however think it was either the virus or tiredness that saw the All Blacks lose this match. It was the England tactics and their good defence that won them the match.
It is interesting that this England victory came on the back of having played South Africa four times this year. The matches against South Africa forced, I believe, the England team to lift their physicality and to sort out their set piece. The England scrum was solid and competitive and they were precise on their own line-out ball and kept on challenging and disrupting the All Black line-out. This prevented New Zealand from running their normal moves off set piece (scrum and line-out) but more importantly it allowed England to pin them down behind the advantage line.
To summarise or emphasize a point, I thought the England defence started by challenging New Zealand in the scrum and line-out to the extent that most New Zealand set piece ball was poor quality (slow, back-foot ball).
There was however two more aspects to the England defence. The most important part was the fact that England (like Italy two weeks ago) kept the ball in hand and in doing so prevented the All Blacks from running at them for the majority of the match. It was the England physicality at the breakdowns when they carried the ball that allowed them to keep possession and which prevented New Zealand from making their normal turnovers at the tackle. The key to the England team’s ability to keep the ball alive and not losing it at the tackle was the aggression of the ball carriers. The ball carriers did not just go to ground waiting for the supporting players to blow-over like the Springboks tend to do. The England ball carriers to a man worked hard in the tackles with aggressive leg drives and robust twirling, rotating, pirouetting as they hit contact. They also to a man bounced off the ground forcing themselves forward into the attacker’s legs as they hit the ground. The twirling / pirouetting prevented the defenders from getting their hands on the ball and the bouncing and forward ‘crawling’ as they hit the ground pushed the pilferer off his feet, giving the support players that split second they needed to blow-over.
This was complimented with superb and speedy low body support at the tackles. The England players were outstanding with regard to their rucking and mauling and maintained low body positions and high numbers throughout the entire match.
The other aspect that stood out with regard to the England defence was their tackling. Two things stood out for me about the England tackling: Firstly, rushing up in tri-pod fashion on the ball receivers; Secondly the way they used low tackles to isolate the ball carriers and prevent off-loads.
England had three players standing off to close down the first channel next to the scrums, rucks and mauls. These players worked in triangle fashion with the tackler rushing up and the other two players hanging back to tackle anyone receiving off-loads. The All Blacks pattern is to work in two’s or three’s flat on the defensive line with the first receiver almost always just acting as a pivot but the other two are then in position to receive an off-load once the player next to him takes the tackle. England combated this by having a player rushing up on the player taking the ball into contact with two support players on either side hanging back closing the gap for the off-load. The next thing they did was that the person making the tackle went in low on the legs of the ball carrier. The low tackles not only made off-loads very difficult but it also created turnovers or extremely slow ball for the All Blacks. The tackle technique was to go in low but to also for the tackler to wrap himself around the ball carrier’s legs so that the tackler would fall behind the tackled man and on his legs. This prevented the ball carrier from bouncing up and crawling forward and placed the defender between the ball carrier and his incoming support. The ball carriers in short had difficulty turning and placing the ball in the tackle with the defender wrapped around his legs.
England was also exemplary in the way they ran with speed onto the ball and in the way they distributed the ball to the outside backs. They did things at pace, the passing was accurate and they used dummy runners and set moves to put players on the outside in space.
It was a good game of rugby and I thought a well-worked and deserved victory for England
The England coach clearly learnt from the previous test matches and from the Italians in terms of defending aggressively in channel one and with regard to keeping your hands on the ball. Hopefully Heyneke Meyer will learn something from this match, as England provided the clear blue print on how to beat the All Blacks.