We look at the major talking points after England’s magnificent 19-7 Rugby World Cup semi-final victory over New Zealand in Yokohama.
A Manu Tuilagi try, plus the boot of George Ford, saw the double-reigning world champion All Blacks knocked out by Eddie Jones’ highly impressive charges.
Here’s what stood out after an incredible Saturday in Japan….
A marriage of sheer brutality and talent
If England’s riposte to the Haka on Saturday – an inverted arrow – and the significance attached to it was not entirely clear, their intentions once the first whistle went were: to physically brutalise the opposition with and without the ball.
This was a near outrageous display of power, strength and fierce physicality against a side well able to mix it in the power game themselves and hotly tipped to book a third straight Rugby World Cup final.
England’s first-half display was almost perfect. A dominant start with regards to collisions in contact, an early try through Tuilagi and an All Black XV rocked and rattled.
Against Australia in the quarter-finals, England won with just 34 per cent of the ball. But they knew a similar tactic would result in defeat here. They changed it up, dominating the ball and the statement-inducing contacts which followed.
The Vunipolas, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Jamie George and Tuilagi all bulldozed through the gainline with ball in hand. Sam Underhill and Owen Farrell combined with the rest to set the tone in defence and thunder into contact.
By half-time, England had wrestled 58 per cent of possession and an astonishing 70 per cent of territory. New Zealand were not in the Test at all, and the only cautionary note for England was that their 10-0 advantage was perhaps unworthy for their efforts.
The crux of the contest revolved around carries, however. Though both sides finished with a similar number – England 150, New Zealand 146 – the difference in gainline success off those carries was stark.
In the first half, 48 of England’s 87 carries had gainline success – 55 per cent – while New Zealand had just 26 of 64 (41 per cent) over the gainline in reply. This went to 79 from 150 – 53 per cent – by full-time for England, while New Zealand’s finished at 59 from 146 – 40 per cent.
Such ruthless dominance allowed England ferocious momentum-building quick-ball, forcing the New Zealand defence onto their heals, to concede frantic penalties and, in turn, experience slow ball when they were in possession.
The net result was the All Blacks nilled at half-time for just the second time this century.
England succeeded in combining raw power with a magnificent display of handling ability, mazy and penetrating lines of running and speed.
Before the opening try, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson both sliced through the New Zealand line to put England into the 22. Tuilagi, Curry and George each punched holes before Lawes and Sinckler produced glorious offloads out of tackles to support runners.
Within seconds, Tuilagi was diving over from a metre out. The All Blacks were stunned, and were never allowed to recover by a tireless England.
The turnover merchants…again
Against Australia, it was England’s knack of turning over ball which set a platform from which clinical finishing saw them to victory.
On Saturday, their turnover stats were even more remarkable. England forced 16 turnovers against the All Blacks – the most by a side in a single Test in this World Cup and the joint-most by England ever at a World Cup, matching their efforts against Japan in 1987. New Zealand made just five.
And like against the Wallabies, Jones’ side forced turnovers at critical moments, in crucial areas.
The lineout was built up all week as a set-piece to attack by the All Blacks. Steve Hansen changed things to select Scott Barrett – a natural lock – at six for the first time in his New Zealand career, with the specific intention of disrupting lineout ball and manufacturing it as a source of turnovers.
Indeed, during the last meeting between these sides in November 2018, England lost five lineouts on their own throw in the second half and lost by a point.
In Yokohama on Saturday, the game had an inordinate amount of lineouts – 27 in total and 18 for England – with the first in the opening seconds.
A nervous-looking George found Lawes solidly, and England grew in confidence thereafter, with Lawes producing the first lineout steal of the Test also, nabbing ball within his own 22 after New Zealand had kicked a penalty to touch. Such an act sucked life out of the All Blacks.
Hansen abandoned his tactical ploy by the half-time break, removing Barrett for Sam Cane.
Itoje, in a freakishly good display, stole another All Black lineout within the first half too, and turned the ball over twice more: counter-rucking and forcing an unplayable maul, as New Zealand became increasingly starved and frustrated.
George Ford – another player New Zealand were said to be targeting – set the tone by stripping the ball off prop Nepo Laulala, Tuilagi intercepted a Beauden Barrett pass, Curry forced a breakdown penalty, as did replacement back-row Wilson in his first piece of involvement. All these incidents occurred within the England half and were pivotal moments.
In attack, the interventions of Underhill and Itoje over the ball preceded England kicking points via a penalty (40 minutes) and the Youngs no-try incident (44 minutes). While in response to New Zealand’s try, Underhill smashed Jordie Barrett to win the ball back for England, after-which Ford kicked three more points (63 minutes).
Curry and Farrell forced further turnovers in general play also, as New Zealand were left scrambling to recycle ball and attempt to build phases.
Replicate a breakdown, set-piece and collision performance such as this, and nobody will beat England. Repeating it is the real test now.
All clear upstairs – on one side
Often, when a side faces the All Blacks at this level, the challenge is as much psychological as it is physical.
Taking that into consideration, the mentality and balance this England squad exhibited in the face of an All Blacks XV which ripped Ireland apart last week, playing a brand of attacking rugby rarely seen in the history of the sport, was extraordinary.
There were several times during the 80 minutes where England heads could have dropped. Indeed, it’s likely most other nations would have folded in similar scenarios.
Starting fantastically, England had to deal with the set-back of an Underhill try being ruled out on 25 minutes. Yet, within moments, Itoje was stealing a lineout and the pack was forcing a scrum penalty. Attentions turned straight to the next job.
Heading in at half-time with just a 10-0 lead to show for a comprehensively one-sided display, England never panicked. There was an overriding feeling that England might be made to pay for not scoring more and the All Blacks would come roaring back.
Yet, the second half saw England create chances first: Daly’s penalty from distance slipping wide, and then Youngs’ thwarted try-scoring effort – in so many ways, the latter was the central moment in the Test.
After turning down a potential shot at goal for a kick to the corner, England’s rolling maul came to a halt before scrum-half Youngs threw a delightful dummy to saunter past Anton Lienert-Brown and queue delirium amongst the players.
But their biggest high of the match so far was brought crashing down when the TMO spotted a knock-on within the maul. An enormous blow, and potential 17-0 advantage in a World Cup semi-final wiped out.
Still England failed to crumble. Within minutes, they were turning the ball back over in the All Black half and attacking once more. No excuses, no negativity. Just pure concentration.
And then, to the largest of all trials faced by the side in Yokohama: George’s overthrow and Ardie Savea’s try with 22 minutes left.
It was a gift, something the All Blacks had not had to construct or work for, and when Richie Mo’unga converted, the gap was just six points. A severe moment of disappointment for Jones’ players.
From here, there appeared only one winner, and it wasn’t England.
Against Australia, England responded to the concession of a try with a quick score of their own, however, and they did so here again.
Within five minutes, Ford kicked a penalty and notched another with 10 minutes left. The mindset England showed to take each potential blow in the semi-final and turn it into motivation to score points, rather than fold back into a shell, was tremendous.
“Courage over fear” is how Sinckler – the outstanding prop in the World Cup so far – aptly termed England’s mindset in the game afterwards.
Mo’unga sliced kicks off the park when under pressure, George did likewise after failing to call a mark in his 22. Rash offloads were thrown and several times New Zealand players were dumped off the pitch, surrendering possession.
With 13 minutes left, Sam Whitelock caused a penalty in the England half to be reversed when he shoved Farrell at a ruck. It was a costly and telling moment.
The All Blacks were made to look hesitant and rushed in equal measure. Panicked and frantic when it was apparent things were not going their way and there was no easy method to arrest the slide.