England need steel to beat All Blacks

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All things must pass but some do so more frequently than others. Last weekend, New Zealand’s forwards delivered 38 passes between them in the first half of their 45-7 defeat of Ireland. England’s pack, who face New Zealand on Saturday at Twickenham, were simultaneously managing a grand total of five in the first 40 minutes of the 26-16 win over Australia.

In this, suspects Corris Thomas, head of the International Rugby Board’s game analysis unit, lies part of the reason for New Zealand’s dominance this year – the British and Irish Lions slaughtered, the Tri-Nations title reclaimed and a home nations grand-slam halfway to achievement, all while averaging 40 points per match.

Thomas notes a second set of numbers, from this year’s Tri-Nations. It was not just that the All Blacks scored 12 tries in four matches, compared with seven each from Australia and South Africa. He says: “Six of South Africa’s tries came from errors by opponents, three more than 70 yards out. None of Australia’s tries started more than 35 yards out, and all but one came from a set-piece. New Zealand scored from all facets of play and all parts of the pitch.”

Those ball-handling forwards give New Zealand a style that sets them apart from every other leading nation, except Six Nations champions Wales. Englishmen such as hooker Steve Thompson and flanker Pat Sanderson can take and give a pass well enough to satisfy any All Black coach. But their mobility and handling skills are used to pick up, drive into contact, set up a ruck and recycle again. New Zealand’s eight do that pretty competently but a whole lot more besides.

This variety contributes, says Morris, to a “pattern of play that gives them more options and more opportunities”. It adds to already formidable weaponry including a lethally quick back three, the power of centre Tana Umaga and the seemingly infinite gifts of outside-half Daniel Carter. New Zealand are also, Morris points out, “remarkably quick to the break-down”, that point of attrition around which so much of the modern game revolves. Richie McCaw – absent today because of injury – plays openside better than any other current player in the world plays any position. And you would have to dig deep into All Black resources to find an openside who would not make a Six Nations squad.

Underpinning it all is an all-round competence. “They may not be the best in
the world in every facet of the game but there’s no part you can say is weak,” says Morris.

So what do England have to do? One way of undermining potent opponents is to deny them possession but England enjoyed a majority of possession in every Six Nations match last season and still lost three out of five while the All Blacks had a minority of ball in the third Test against the Lions but scored five tries to one. Nor is England’s patient probe-and-recycle game, taking the ball through 17 phases before Mark Cueto’s try against Australia last week, likely to worry the All Blacks. Morris points out: “None of the 26 tries in the Tri-Nations came from a move that went through more than three phases.” Only one team has worried New Zealand this year: South Africa, who beat them 22-16 in Cape Town before losing narrowly 31-27 in Dunedin. Thomas says: “South Africa appear unconcerned if the other team has more possession. They use a fast and very physically aggressive defence to pressurise their opponents into making mistakes.”

But there are also exemplars closer to home. English champions Wasps’ blitz defence has a similar effect. England will be wary of discarding defensive patterns that have served them well – and Morris counsels against wholesale change in method to counter specific opponents. “You have to plan your approach and while you make adjustments for opponents, what you need to do is play your own game as well as you possibly can.”

But for them, and every other team with serious ambitions to rival these formidable All Blacks, there are lessons to be taken from what South Africa and Wasps are doing.

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