How Eddie Jones’s team suffocated the defending champions to reach the final
2019 Rugby World Cup: England find New Zealand’s pressure point
Pressure. That was the buzzword in the build-up.
Eddie Jones said it was all on New Zealand, that it was “chasing them down the street” as they chased a third straight World Cup win. Steve Hansen threw it back the other way, highlighting that England were under pressure to right the wrongs of 2015, when they were knocked out before the knockouts.
Both were, of course, trying to lift the pressure on their own players with these off-field media messages. Yet it was the physical and relentless pressure England put New Zealand under on the pitch that was the decisive factor in their semi-final victory.
Jones’s team put the All Blacks in situations they simply weren’t accustomed to and, crucially, couldn’t escape from. They made the All Blacks uncomfortable, forced them to make decisions they wouldn’t usually do and that in turn led to uncharacteristic errors.
The likes of Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry suffocated New Zealand in defence, denying the men in black the oxygen that their game is built on – quick ball – and preventing them from building any momentum.
England appeared to use a mix of the umbrella and blitz defence, at times corralling the Kiwi players into a narrower channel so they had less space to work and at others spot-blitzing with individuals shooting out of the line to close down the ball-carrier.
It was smart. New Zealand weren’t used to operating in the face of such intensity and time constraints. They looked harried and rattled, and they simply weren’t able to execute.
Richie Mo’unga, usually so inventive in attack, had his creativity stifled. Beauden Barrett, whose first instinct is to run, was forced to kick the ball into touch to clear threats.
An All Black attack in the closing minutes perfectly illustrated how England were able to close them down. The Kiwis launched from a scrum in their own half and made it to halfway but within 30 seconds they were back on their own ten-metre line, such was England’s line speed.
As Jones, who incidentally is the first coach to beat the All Blacks twice at a World Cup having done so with Australia in 2003, said afterwards: “New Zealand are the gods of rugby so we had to take the game to them. We had to put them on the back foot as much as we could.”
They did that perfectly from the start – Manu Tuilagi’s second-minute try the fastest New Zealand have conceded at a World Cup – and the fact they were able to maintain that intensity was a testament to their conditioning and their commitment.
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The statistics at half-time told the story – 69% territory, 62% possession, 48 carries over the gain-line to New Zealand’s 26. Yet the one figure that encapsulates this match perfectly is the 19 turnovers New Zealand conceded.
England starved New Zealand of the ball and disrupted their attacks, with the likes of Itoje and Curry menaces at the breakdown critical. One of Mark Wilson’s first contributions when he came on was winning a turnover.
And all that led to the defending champions having to chase the game – another situation they are unfamiliar with.
Put under extreme stress, the All Blacks are like any rugby players and made mistakes. They conceded as many penalties in the first ten minutes of the second half as they did in the first half and as the clock ticked on and they became more desperate, they made “fundamental errors” in the words of Hansen. Errant passes, wayward attacks – things that you simply don’t expect to see from a New Zealand team.
The margin of victory may have been only 12 points but it felt more emphatic than that. In reality, the one try New Zealand scored was a gift delivered by an errant lineout throw. Try as they might, they couldn’t score any more points. The pressure told.
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