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The All Blacks’ season summed up in one bizarre game

One wonders how many times we will hear the expression ‘a game of two halves’ this week.

New Zealand had total dominance at the gain-line and breakdown for the majority of this game; then, in almost a total reversal of roles, started to kick poorly, and invited England back into the contest.

Suddenly, England looked really good with ball in hand, overloaded the right-hand side of the park, let Marcus Smith actually take over the running of the side; and the All Blacks simply could not adjust to the numbers.

For a side that has struggled to get out of the blocks, playing from behind in their opening four matches of the year, the All Blacks exploded from the kick-off. Something has changed in their approach: be it in the coaching staff – they have certainly exited better with the new line-up – or be it work on the mental side of their game, or simply a better focus from the whistle.

The All Blacks looked on right from the kick-off, although they were handed the dream start. From an England set piece, Marcus Smith left his slot a mile too soon telegraphing the play, Dalton Papali’i read the gap perfectly and picked off the pass from Jack van Poortvliet with ease to stroll over under the posts.

That will certainly be a half of football the newbie England halfback will be looking to forget: under pressure from a series of All Black counter rucks, he never got comfortable and looked laboured in his work as New Zealand, like all good trout fisherman, caught him and released him back into the wild only to catch him again in short order.

A big plus for New Zealand was the work of Scott Barrett. Forwards coach Jason Ryan noted before the game that his form simply demanded inclusion and he delivered in spades with what I would call a Player of the Day performance, even though he did not complete the 80 minutes.

The All Blacks’ tactics, for the majority of this game, were hopefully a glimpse of what is to come from this side in the Rugby World Cup year, as they went forward through the middle of the park with ease and headed to the sheds with a comfortable lead.

The new Black props really are the business not only at scrum time and lineout maul defence – which was exceptional – but also as defenders in the middle of the park. On the goal line, the front row played its part in knocking back England’s big ball carriers, while there was a mix of tactics from the backs.

Off the back of normal swift service from Aaron Smith, the trio of Richie Mo’unga, Jordie Barrett and Beauden Barrett were moving the English back-field around with ease with the boot, finding lots of space and their own men in the wider channels. It was a tactic designed to let Mo’unga run more centrally than we have seen this year, condensing that England line before spreading again; and the home side struggled to adjust to the variation in tactics, all backed up with an offensive ruck that provided a steady flow of ball.

However, there was a underlying feeling, even through their periods of genuine dominance, that the All Blacks were going to the well a little too often, and England were invited back into the contest when perhaps having them throw into their lineout from deeper in the park would have been a better tactic on occasion.

As the second stanza opened, the drop off in intensity from New Zealand was tangible, and a reflection of large periods of games we have already seen this year.

England started with a renewed focus, while the ABs went back to committing simple errors. A really passive exit carry by Codie Taylor was indicative of the change in mood; add to that lazy penalties from the pack leaders at ruck time and England must have felt they were back in the game, to some extent at least.

Not many reports on this game will slide by without observing the performance of referee Mathieu Raynal, who seemed keen to demonstrate his very full knowledge of our game’s extensive law book by going through it page by page across the 80 minutes.

This saw the majority of the second half slip quietly by in stop-start fashion, and this really should have played straight into New Zealand’s hands but for a series of unforced errors.

Mo’unga missed touch, Taylor and Samisoni Taukei’aho also erred from lineouts, and the penalty count began to rack up against them as their discipline dissipate and England’s breakdowns improved dramatically.

One of the big improvements from this All Blacks side in the back half of the season has been in decision-making and game management; in the crucial minutes, though, there were some serious crumbles both on the park and in the coaching box.

Owen Farrell of England interacts with Ethan de Groot of New Zealand during the Autumn International match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on November 19, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Owen Farrell of England interacts with Ethan de Groot of New Zealand during the Autumn International match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on November 19, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Don’t expect to see both Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock finish a full 80-minute stint again anytime soon – having two sets of aging legs certainly didn’t help as the clock ticked down. The substitution of Aaron Smith looked like a sensible call at the time, but all the momentum that had been built collapsed into a series of slow ball rucks, and that poorly executed kick conceding possession inside your own half with the match on the line is something TJ Perenara will be having nightmares about for a while yet.

But for mine, the poorest of game management calls was the taking of the drop goal.

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It changed nothing – England already needed three scores to get back into the game, and New Zealand were on the attack with penalty advantage right in front of the sticks.

Surely it was better to keep ball in hand, try to keep the attack going and if it comes to nothing, then take the points off the tee and wind a further two precious minutes off the clock. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the English side as they ran back to halfway to kick-off.

From then on England were on the charge, moving the ball with real intent. Marcus Smith was creating more space than they had done all day, and the All Blacks’ defensive line, which had operated as a collective for the previous 70 minutes, fell back on individuals looking to solve defensive issues on their own. That is a recipe for disaster against good international sides.

It was the same top-two inches’ weakness that has plagued this side in 2022, and it cost them a Test match win here.

Congratulations to England for the superb comeback, but the All Blacks will look back on that second stanza as one where calmer heads would have delivered a season’s end to be truly proud of.

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