There is no doubt in my mind that 26 October saw a defining moment in world rugby history. An engagement of two nations, dressed in a royal pride of black and white, played the most anticipated eighty minutes of test rugby the sport has ever seen.
In typical student fashion – bathrobes included – we sat ourselves in front of a small and lopsided television, staring through half-open eyes at ITV’s buffering screen. Our hopes confused by twin narratives of All Black dominance and a seemingly reformed England team, it seemed that for the first time, Rugby’s barometer really was restless – there was no reliable forecast for this match.
A small rolling montage of previous clashes between the two sides pleasantly placed me back in my seat at Twickenham Stadium in 2008. A phenomenal silence rung through the arches as the Kiwis crouched to perform their Haka, English players and fans alike, frozen in place. I turned to my father to ask the perhaps pointless question; “Dad, who’s gonna win?” He, without hesitation, pointed towards the men in black as they rose from their stations, crying for war. Aged ten, with no real knowledge of the sport, the agreeing stillness was all I needed to know exactly what was about to happen. So, how is it then that after 115 years of rugby, yielding only eight victories for England, Jones’ team were able to topple the most fearsome XV on earth?
We have to start with the team. Stuart Lancaster will forever be known for the flop of 2015, but it would be unfair to suggest he had not picked a strong side. His selection identified fantastic players; his failure lay in their cohesion as a team. He was unable to instil unity in his men and as a result, poor communication, a myriad of handling errors and a simple lack of belief walked his England right through the back door of their home stadium in front of their own nation, broken.
Today, a Ford-Farrell combination in the centres acts as a central nervous system for Eddie Jones’s network of players. In attack, passes and offloads from his forwards, as fast as synaptic static, link players across an expansive field. Information flows through Jones’s 10 and 12 to bring the rest of the body into action, unleashing his back line. Discipline speeds the ball effortlessly on its way, handling a concern of the past.
The breakdown is a game in itself for Tom Curry and Sam Underhill. Like a disease, an attacking opposition will succumb to the cellular precision of the flankers’ need to obliterate anything that poses a threat. Curry has played every superb minute of England’s World Cup. His development, attributed to a supportively competitive team ethos key to player success, sits him as the youngest man on 2019’s Player of the Year shortlist.
A communicative foundation allows these blocks of players to harmoniously create an adaptive style of play, a style capable of bringing down the All Blacks.
The ‘boring rugby’ England have been accused of playing – especially in the pool stages – is a beautiful response to the knowledge that every game will be different. Jones has trained his men to react to all kinds of opponent. His tactic for dominating the New Zealand game was to prevent them from being able to play at all. A refreshing answer to the Haka, England’s arrowhead already had New Zealand on the back foot.
Following an early score, both teams were in a very unfamiliar position, the difference between the two being Eddie Jones.
Four years of preparations geared solely towards this tournament has taken and tweaked the Lancaster selection and given them a self-belief parallel to no other.
England beat New Zealand because, for the first time in an age, they believed they could.
Image: Belinda Lester via Wikimedia Commons