Beneath a dark forbidding November sky came a finale to light up a previously All Black night. Three tries in the last eight minutes of a game that had seemed well out of England’s reach altered the entire complexion of the evening and threw up one of the more unlikely game-saving heroes.
The replacement prop Will Stuart will never top this rescue act, his late double rescuing an unlikely draw from the jaws of a heavy defeat.
England had trailed 25-6 entering the final 10 minutes, seemingly down and out. At no stage did it seem that there would be anything other than a New Zealand win until Beauden Barrett was sent to the sin-bin with nine minutes left and the cavalry charge began. Stuart’s close-range brace, sandwiched either side of a Freddie Steward score, yielded the first Twickenham draw in this fixture for 25 years.
The All Blacks will wonder how on earth they threw it away. They have not been sighted in south-west London for four years but for much of the game this felt just like old times. Direct carrying, heavy pressure on the England scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet, a clever mix of diagonal cross-kicks and smart running angles combined to give the visitors an advantage they would usually maximise. Fair play to England for keeping going and confounding the laws of rugby gravity.
If they had played with as much dynamism and purpose for the first 70 minutes, though, it would have helped. Eddie Jones will be grateful to his “finishers” for saving the day but he will also know that New Zealand, for long periods, looked comfortably the better team. The late twist was all the more unexpected because absolutely no one, home fans included, saw it coming.
Until the last hectic moments, from England’s perspective, this had largely been a black and white horror movie. Only three minutes had elapsed when Van Poortvliet’s attempted pass to Owen Farrell following a lineout was picked off by a flying Dalton Papalii who raced 45 metres to complete the interception score.
England’s task was soon to become even more mountainous. Again New Zealand used the cross kick to good effect and went on to establish a good platform in their opponents’ 22. Driven mauls are an increasing discussion point in the game but there could be no arguing about the expertise with which the All Blacks splintered the home pack to send their hooker, Codie Taylor, over.
Jordie Barrett’s second successful conversion made it 14-0 with barely nine minutes played. The scoreboard would have made even bleaker English reading had a potential third New Zealand try by Rieko Ioane not been chalked off because the centre had collared Farrell around the neck at a preceding ruck.
Until their composure went pear-shaped, the All Blacks looked a different team to the side humbled by Ireland in the summer. Their new forwards coach, Jason Ryan, has tightened up their set piece, in particular, and with the returning Brodie Retallick packing down behind their hefty tight head Tyrel Lomax there was a lot for England’s front five to deal with.
A Farrell penalty did put England on the board but as the pace of the game slowed slightly so did the opportunities for England to prosper off turnover ball. Increasingly the game began to be played in England’s half and another Barrett penalty, awarded against Ellis Genge for offside at the ruck, made it 17-3 at the interval.
Back in the day it would have been game over. Great All Black teams would have smiled wolfishly and ratcheted up the pain. And even this vintage, after a mixed old year, must have scented the sweet smell of redemption.
The World Cup semi-final in Yokohama in 2019 suddenly felt like ancient history.
England, though, were about to burst into life. Marcus Smith, taking over the goal kicking after Farrell tweaked an ankle, popped over a penalty and then neatly slipped a charging Manu Tuilagi through a hole to put the visitors under some sustained goal line pressure. A try looked certain, only for the referee, Mathieu Raynal, to rule an English forward had flopped over the top at the crucial moment.
Was that England’s best chance gone? Almost immediately the ball was ripped from the charging Sam Simmonds’ grasp by Retallick and another clever cross-kick left England exposed on the left. One slick offload from Caleb Clarke was all it took to release the lurking Ioane and the latter displayed the pace of the winger he used to be to race 65 metres for his side’s third try.
England tried rotating their bench but a steady stream of breakdown penalties interrupted any momentum they may have had. While Jonny May did break free once, nothing ultimately came of it and Beauden Barrett’s drop goal appeared to have put the black cherry on the top.
Cue Stuart, who chose the perfect moment to score his first tries for his country. For New Zealand it concludes a year that still looks much better than it did in July. And for England? Next up are South Africa, who never head to London with anything less than serious intent. If Jones’s side can pick up where they left off here it should be another humdinger.