Always leave them wanting more. For a fixture that comes around every four years or so, the anticipation for the next instalment of England versus New Zealand is already palpable. Marcus Smith’s decision to take the draw added to a strange mix of exhilaration and anticlimax at full-time and it was left to Maro Itoje to try to make sense of it all. “Why can’t we play like that for the whole game?” he wondered. Sometimes the most obvious questions are the hardest to answer.
First, it pays to go back four years to the All Blacks’ previous visit and a similarly thrilling finish. England went down 16-15 but were far more polished. Eddie Jones has never been happier in defeat and we found out why at the World Cup semi-final 12 months later. Indeed, he recently recalled how in that defeat “we learned more about them than they learned about us”.
It is telling that four years on, after snatching a draw from the desperate position of being 19 points down with 10 minutes to go, Jones was more downbeat as he tried to accentuate the positives. He was unconvincing when claiming England were “disappointed” to draw and resigned to the fact that in the first half New Zealand had simply been too good for his side.
If England learned one thing about the All Blacks on Saturday it is that this incarnation cannot be bullied as they were in Yokohama and, as easy as it is to criticise Jones’s side for not “playing like that for the whole game”, to a large extent they simply were not allowed to.
If they looked like world beaters for 10 minutes, for 70 they were made to look like World Cup also‑rans. “We have an incredible amount of potential in this team, we just need to unlock it,” Itoje insisted. “We just didn’t get out of the blocks how we wanted to, we left it until the second half where all the pressure was on us to finally be free and finally play this type of rugby that we want to play.”
To return to Itoje’s question, it is worth looking at what went right as they scored three tries in the last 10 minutes, and the most obvious answer is Smith’s sense of abandon. It was he who instigated the move that led to Beauden Barrett’s yellow card and Will Stuart’s first try with his trademark hitch-kick, seizing the reins that he sometimes struggles to share with Owen Farrell. Jones said: “I like him when he’s really aggressive. I think sometimes he can be a little bit play-a-play to play-a-play.”
In other words, he can be a bit too tentative, trying to lay the platform for subsequent phases. “We want to play every play to break the line because I think that’s how rugby is going to be played in the future. I want him to be really aggressive and take the line on all the time.”
That is easier said than done with Farrell alongside him. Farrell often steps in at first receiver when the two are playing together with Smith sweeping behind. England had considerable joy when Smith grasped the nettle, however, a situation basically forced upon him because Farrell was hampered by an ankle injury. Indeed, it worked so well because Farrell was still exerting considerable influence from inside centre and as captain – he deserves huge credit for dragging England back into the contest – but willing to give Smith room to breathe.
In many ways Smith’s decision to kick the ball out at the death is a snapshot of his autumn, trying to learn when to trust his instinct, when to resist it and inevitably there have been times when he has got it wrong. It should also be noted that taking a 25-25 draw against 14 men who are on the ropes does not give off the sense of “belief” that England were repeatedly adamant they had in the buildup.
In 2018 Jones had reason to be optimistic for the World Cup despite defeat but there are less obvious grounds at present. They have commendable spirit and the potential Itoje talks of is evidently there but England’s inability to consistently realise it is wearing thin.
So will the final 10 minutes prove a turning point for England, or paper over the cracks? South Africa are up next and Jones will tinker with his side to combat Springbok muscle, revealing he intends to go back to fielding a lock at blindside flanker. That most likely means a start for the South Africa-born David Ribbans – excellent off the bench against the All Blacks – while Mako Vunipola, Stuart, Ben Youngs and Henry Slade all did their chances no harm from the bench.
More important, however, will be to begin with the intent with which they finished on Saturday night. “I only wish the game was a little bit sooner because we left a lot out there,” Itoje said. “South Africa haven’t changed the way they play since – I don’t know – their first game in international rugby! Strong set piece, strong kicking game, strong defence.” England know the questions the Springboks will pose, now is the time to provide resounding answers.