Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

After mixed results against Argentina and Japan, England’s Autumn Nations Series campaign stepped up a gear with the arrival of New Zealand. The All Blacks were coming in off the back of 2 wins but very different levels of performance in the previous weeks, but this week they ere ahead after just a matter of minutes as Dalton Papali’i read the England lineout move and intercepted Jack van Poortvliet’s pass to go over from long range. England were struggling to get a hanhold in the game early on, and when a scrum penalty allowed New Zealand to kick to the corner, the All Blacks maul found it all too easy to work their way over for a second try in the opening 10 minutes, Codie Taylor getting the armchair ride to the line. Going 0-14 down finally spurred an England attack, and after winning a penalty they kicked to the corner, only for their maul set-up to be pinged for obstruction. Ill discipline and inaccurate play were costing England, and when Ardie Savea pounced on van Poortvliet not controlling the ball well enough at the back of a ruck deep in his own 22, it sparked an attack that ended in a try beneath the posts for Rieko Ioane, only for the TMO to spot a neck roll from him a few phases earlier to let England off. England’s next attack ended in a fumble from Jonny Hill close tot he try line, but when Richie Mo’unga saw a pass fly out of his hands horribly wrong in his own 22, England were gifted with a central scrum, a penalty against Tyrel Lomax gave Owen Farrell the simplest of kicks at goal after 25 minutes. As the clock ticked down on the first half, New Zealand had time for one last attack, only for Jordie Barrett to knock on with the line at his mercy, and while an attempted tackle by Ellis Genge hat involved head-to-head contact was ignored by officials, a penalty against the prop for offsie allowed Jordie Barrett to kick the All Blacks into a 3-17 lead at the break.

With Owen Farrell struggling with a knock picked up lae in the first half, Marcus Smith took over kicking duties and had an easy first kick just minutes into the second half, and a clever delayed pass from the flyhalf on the edge of the visitors 22 sent Manu Tuilagi up to the try line, but after a series of pick-and-gos from the forwards, New zealand won the penalty for the latcher going off their feet while the backs were left looking at the wide open space they had in front of them. And they were made to pay minutes later as a clever crossfield kick to Caleb Clarke coming infield allowed him to release the looping Rieko Ioane, who otpaced everyone to run in unchallenged from is own 22. A clever flat pass from Owen Farrell set Luke Cowan-Dickie charging into the 22, but yet another attack came to nothing as Brodie Retallick waited for van Poortvliet to pick up the ball and hooked his arm as he passed to force the knock on. England kept coming with the attacks, but New Zealand’s defence were finding it too easy to stop them when things got dangerous and turn the ball over. England continued to create chances that they couldn’t finish, while as the game entered the final 10 minutes, Beauden Barrett landed a drop goal to stretch the lead to 19. Barrett’s next involvement was much more cynical, killing the ball as Marcus Smith’s break was stopped just short of the line, and he found himself sent to the bin, while Will Stuart was adjudged to have scored his first England try on the next phase. And England took full advantage of the extra man to strike again just minutes later, with Freddie Steward going over out wide, Marcus Smith cutting the deficit to 7 with the conversion. And with just 2 minutes remaining, England completed the turnaround as Stuart crashed over from close range, Smith’s conversion trying the game with a minute left. It all came down to the restart, and ENgland secured the ball, with Marcus Smith choosing to kick the ball out to end the game as a 25-25 draw.

Learning opportunity

This is not a match that Jack van Poortvliet will look back at fondly. The young scrum half has been fantastic for England, but had a torrid day against the All Blacks.

Right from the opening minutes, the rote attack of Eddie Jones’ England was laid bare as they looked to throw a long lineout and then go off the top, and while a more experienced 9 may have recognised that the lineout going beyond the 15m line would have given the rear gunner extra time to get up in the passing lane, this was missed by the young Tiger, who saw his pass picked off as easy as you like for an early New Zealand try.

Not long after this, a box kick sailed far too long, allowing New Zealand to gather and call the mark with no pressure, while at the other end of the pitch, he was caught out taking too long at the back of a ruck where the ball was to the side of the hindmost foot rather than under it—therefore technically being out of the ruck—and this gave Ardie Savea the extra fraction of a second he needed to attack him and make the tackle during the kick motion. And then sadly his final act of the game was to knock on as Brodie Retallick perfectly timed a hook of his arm as he tried to play away from the breakdown.

While it was a poor game, it was probably actually what a young 9 like him needed. It was a reminder of the extra pressures of playing at Test level and the quality that you will be up against. Your kicks and passes have to be that extra inch more accurate, and there is that yard less before a defender is in your face. The key for him is to look back at this match as a learning experience and aim to be back to his usual standard next week.

Of course, that is assuming Eddie doesn’t do his usual thing of now dropping him from the 23 and all future squads off the back of 1 bad game…

Playing with the big boys

New Zealand may not be the team that they used to be after years of stagnation under Ian Foster. However, what they still are is a bunch of very skilled—and more importantly very big—players. And England showed exactly how not to attack against them. While they frequently got through the All Blacks’ defensive line with a clever tip on or flat pass at the line, they then tried to make it a physical battle to get over the line.

So let’s look at that New Zealand defence. While you may rightly query Bower’s workrate in defence, he is as physical as anyone else in the New Zealand front row, while playing Scott Barrett at 6 added extra physicality, Papali’i adds much more than Sam Cane at 7, and everyone knows that Ardie Savea is physicality personified! Then in the backs, playmakers Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett’s strength and defensive ability is often overlooked as people focus on their attacking skill, Jordie Barrett has added extra physicality to the 12 position since replacing David Havili, while Rieko Ioane’s strength is often forgotten as people talk about his pace. Then finally on the wings, you have Caleb Clarke, whose strength is clear to all, and Mark Telea, who more that holds his own as well.

So when you look at this team, it is very clear that you don’t want to take them on physically, as there are very few teams who will be able to match them in this department. Instead, they key is to working the shapes and the space, utilising clever tip-ons and running lines to keep the defence on their toes, and most importantly, avoiding your pack getting white line fever and getting it out to the backs once the space is there.

It’s noticeable that with the extra space provided by Beauden Barrett’s yellow card, England put more focus on attacking the space once they reached the 22, and in doing so, they completed the comeback. The complete difference between the first 70 minutes and the final 10 minutes shows just how important it is to target the right areas when attacking New Zealand.

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Australia v England: Team of the Series

Australia v England: Team of the Series

We are one week on from the end of England’s summer tour to Australia. 2 enemies facing each other down under in a 3-Test series that saw old favourites return, new stars make their debuts and a shed-load of Wallaby injuries on the way to a 2-1 series victory for England.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship,it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.

My combined XV from England’s 3-Test series in Australia is:

1) Ellis Genge: The Baby Rhino has developed into a great Test player. He’s solid in the scrum and improving year on year, and has mellowed to a degree that you no longer worry about him being wound up by the opposition. But more than anything, he reminded us just how dangerous he is with ball in hand with some bulldozing carries, making some of the best players on the pitch get sent flying backwards.

2) Jamie George: David Porecki did a solid job at hooker for the Wallabies on his first caps, which by Aussie hooker standards is good at this point. However the space goes to Jamie George, who had another solid series inthe #2 jersey, keeping the set piece solid.

3) Will Stuart: Shout out to James Slipper for covering the other side of the scrum for the first 2 weeks, while both Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou were impacted by injury. Will Stuart may not have done anything to stand out, but did a solid job in the #3 jersey with Kyle Sinckler unavailable.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Ollie Chessum: Injuries and suspensions led to very little consistency in the Wallabies’ second row, while Jonny Hill’s tour should have been over 15 minutes into the first Test. Maro Itoje had his “Saracens Maro” moments of going above and beyond in his antics with his yelling at the lineout, but put in 3 solid performances around the park, while Chessum looked comfortable at Test level and deserves to get more minutes in the Autumn.

6) Courtney Lawes: I will continue to argue that he should be in the second row rather than at flanker, but Lawes continues to put in super-reliable performances week in, week out. Add to that the extra responsibility of the captaincy and this was another solid tour for the Northampton star.

7) Michael Hooper: Just like Lawes, you can always rely on the Aussie skipper to give at least an 8/10 performance every week. Continued to show that he is one of the best 7s in the world with incredible turnovers at crucial times, despite England focusing on him at the breakdown.

8) Billy Vunipola: Rob Valentini continues to grow as a Test-level number 8, but he was overshadowed here by Vunipola. Whether you feel that he should be there or not, he did a great job of carrying hard to help put England on the front foot.

9) Jack van Poortvliet: The Leicester halfback made his Test debut on this tour and should have already secured his spot in the 23, if not the starting XV. Took to Test rugby like a duck to water, controlling the game with variety and getting his box kicks right on the money.

10) Noah Lolesio: Marcus Smith had some fantastic moments and Lolesio had some struggles, but I feel that the Wallabies 10 was the more consistent over the 3 Tests, while his reliability off the tee was a axtra mark in is favour as Smith left the goal kicking to Owen Farrell.

11) Marika Koroibete: Tommy Freeman sparked plenty of excitement in the final Test, but I have gone for the more consistent Koroibete. Though I’m not sure he was the Player of the Series, his strong carrying and willingness to come in off his wing helped set up a platform for the Australian attack.

12) Samu Kerevi: Kerevi makes this team so much better just by his inclusion. Has followed the Ma’a Nonu progression route of going from a crash ball 12 to developing his passing and kicking game to become an all-round playmaker. Used all facets of the game to great effect through the series.

13) Hunter Paisami: Guy Porter certainly didn’t look out of his depth but was sometimes lacking in defence. Paisami is a great look at his potential career trajectory, as the young Queensland Red has become a solid, reliable defender and built on that as he has gained experience at Test level.

14) Tom Wright: Jack Nowell is unlucky to miss out after a solid series, but Wright gets the nod here for how well he adapted to repeated injury-enforced change-ups to the back line, which saw him also spend time at fullback. Found some issues dealing with Tommy Freeman in the decider, but caused issues of his own for the English when he attacked.

15) Freddie Steward: Wins this spot by default as almost everyone who took up the position for Australia soon found themselves injured, but Steward also wins this spot on merit. Dominated the air in a way that very few manage to do and looks much more experienced than his handful of caps would suggest.

Australia v England

Australia v England

After their first win over England since RWC2015, Australia were looking to make it 2 from 2 so far this summer as they faced England in Brisbane. The Wallabies were disrupted last week by injuries just before and during the first half, and this match started in similar fashion with Jordan Petaia—on his first Test start at 15—got his head on the wrong side of a tackle and was replaced by Izaia Perese, and the Wallabies barely had time to reorganise before England were ahead, with Billy Vunipola being driven over from a 5m lineout. Farrell kicked the conversion and 2 penalties, and when Marcus Smith threw a wide pass towards Tommy Freeman in the Australian 22, Izaia Perese just failed to catch it one-handed and was duly sent to the bin for what was considered a deliberate knock-on, with referee Andrew Brace and TMO Joy Neville apparently seeing the same phantom covering defender that popped up in Dunedin just hours earlier and adjudging just a penalty (which Farrell kicked) rather than a penalty try. Farrell added another penalty as Perese’s card was coming to an end, but then the Wallabies celebrated a return to 15 men with their first foray into the English 22, and Taniela Tupou topped it off by crashing over for the try, Noah Lolesio adding the extras for a 7-19 scoreline. England were dealt a further blow just before the break as Maro Itoje failed to get low enough when trying to tackle Hunter Paisami and instead found his head making heavy contact with the centre’s shoulder to bring his tour to an early end.

The second half started much like the first for Australia: with an injury. Samu Kerevi ried a soft chip out to the wing for Perese, but as the young Waratahs back came back to ground he appeared to injure his knee, requiring him to leave the pitch on a stretcher. Farrell opened the scoring in the half with another penalty, but Australia were soon on the attack and after Taniela Tupou was stopped just short of the line, Samu Kerevi was sent over out wide, Lolesio adding the extras to narrow the deficit to 8. Australia continued to be beset by injuries as Scott Sio’s game came to an end just seconds after coming on, but they were fighting on and soo found themselves with the numerical advantage as Marcus Smith was pinged for a deliberate knock-on, Lolesio kicking the resulting penalty. Cadeyrn Neville was the next Wallabies player to leave the pitch injured to hand Nick Frost his Test debut. As the game entered the final hour, Farrell found Jack Nowell in space with a kick-pass to bring England into the 22, and though they were eventually held up over the line, they had won another penalty which the Saracens fly half duly kicked for 3 more points. As the final substitutions were made while the clock ticked down, the game fell into a degree of disarray, and while Farrell lost his perfect kicking percentage with a late attempt, Australia could not create any final chances and fell to a 17-25 defeat.

The best laid plans…

You can’t help but feel for Australia in this series. Test rugby at the top level is hard enough at the best of times, but it becomes so much harder when players are going down injured left, right and centre.

Last week, Taniela Tupou was unavailable ahead of selection, and was joined by intended starting fly half Quade Cooper in the pre-match warm-up, while Tom Banks and Allan Ala’alatoa were also lost to injury in that match. This week, Tupou was back to take Ala’alatoa’s place, but the game saw Petaia, Sio, Neville and Perese all lost to injury.

As Robert Burns said in his poem To a Mouse: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley,” To suffer so many injuries in a match is always going to make it hard to get momentum and consistency, especially when you are forced into reshuffles as Australia were by the loss of Jordan Petaia with no recognised fullback on the bench, while Angus Bell clearly struggled as the game wound down due to playing 89 minutes with just a 1-minute break for the moment Sio was on the pitch.

I hate to see injuries play such a key part in a match, so I will continue to argue that though teams should still have a limited number of substitutions per match, they should be able to have the rest of the 30-man squad available on the bench rather than just 8 replacements, as this will reduce the disruption to teams from circumstances outside of their control, while also reducing the chances of running out of trained front rowers like we saw when Hame Faiva was red carded against Ireland.

New kid on the block

I’ve been arguing for some time now that Ben Youngs is no longer playing at the level required to be in the England Test team. Well he may be watching his spot in the Test squad disappear right now courtesy of his Leicester teammate Jack van Poortvliet.

The 21-year-old Tiger, played an absolute blinder on his first Test start. He provided quick ball for the backs, marshalled his pack to take advantage of their dominance and kept the Australian defence on their toes when he looked to take the ball on himself.

But what really stood out was his box kicking. This is often why Youngs is talked about as still being in the team, but van Poortvliet just did the job miles better, with every kick either able to be contested in the air or setting up the chaser to make the hit as soon as the Australian player landed.

It’s clear that van Poortvliet has paid attention learning alongside Youngs and Richard Wigglesworth. And much like his fellow Tiger Freddie Steward, he ha come into Test rugby and immediately looked like a veteran—and a damn good quality one at that! If he can continue to put in performances like this, it will be impossible to drop him.