The optimistic view of England’s remarkable comeback to draw 25-25 with New Zealand on Saturday is the thrilling rugby played by the home side in a mad last 10 minutes can be a benchmark for their final autumn series joust with South Africa and the Six Nations and World Cup beyond.
The handling and support play from Tom Curry and Mako Vunipola and Steward and Dave Ribbans – the substitute lock produced two worldie passes in a couple of minutes – had Twickenham rocking. And those in the crowd who booed loudly when Marcus Smith kicked the ball out with the clock in the red, rather than mount one last attack in search of the ultimate switcheroo result, felt with plenty of justification that England should have gambled on continuing their rampant running against 14 men, with the All Blacks’ full-back Beauden Barrett in the sin bin.
If England had produced the same surge in the final 10 minutes against Argentina two weeks before, instead of going scoreless in that period and losing 30-29, the calendar year’s results sheet would not be reading five wins, a draw and five losses from 11 matches.
That in turn probably played on the minds of Smith and others, even while many of us on the sidelines rated a home draw in a non-competition fixture as akin to a loss.
Smith was playing his 16th Test, still settling as his country’s pivot and playmaker. The 23-year-old was not available for interview afterwards but an educated guess is the draw was in his mind from the moment he missed the conversion of the first of those three late tries, and England were 25-11 down with seven minutes to play.
Smith delayed the third conversion, and when it came to New Zealand’s final restart, England were – according to Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and Jones afterwards – worried about referee Mathieu Raynal’s pinging of messy attacking rucks. A quick pass and at least one strong carry was needed to get going again. Instead, the ball was lobbed to Smith who kicked it out.
Henry Slade had his head in his hands, and Stuart the try-scoring prop looked baffled too. They and Ribbans and Mako Vunipola were substitutes bursting with more to give, but others’ body language was different. Billy Vunipola had put in an 80-minute shift that Jones said was his best since 2019, even if it included three penalties conceded among a total of 14 from each side.
So many questions remain. Smith’s hallmark for his club Harlequins is adventurism within a game plan of like-minded runners. Here he appeared unleashed by Farrell limping as a peripheral second-half figure. Yet Jones appeared frustrated that England were not seeing enough from Smith – which either reflects back on the England coaching, or on a team mindset Jones is struggling to change.
“I like him [Smith] when he’s really aggressive,” Jones said. “Now I think that sometimes he can be a little bit play-a-play – like, the way we want to attack, 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 – not necessarily himself, individually, but have that intent.”
Should England have reacted to New Zealand’s devastating kick-passes and moved Steward to the wing? Will the tyro scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet be better for a tough 63 minutes being monstered by Aaron Smith and Ardie Savea?
England’s totemic lock Maro Itoje gave his usual considered view, as a pearl pendant dangled from his left ear, pondering why “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.”
He would have liked South Africa – against whom Jones said he would revert to three line-out jumpers – brought to Twickenham there and then. “South Africa haven’t changed the way they play since – I don’t know – their first game in international rugby,” Itoje said. “Strong set piece, strong kicking game, strong defence. It’s a great challenge.”
Savea at No 8 was a joy to watch, and a beast at the breakdown, and he said of England: “It’s pretty freakish and pretty special to be able to come back like that with 10 to go. They have probably proven to themselves that when they play, they are quite a dangerous team.”
‘New Zealand would have tried to win’
New Zealand try-scorer Rieko Ioane said England “looked a bit confused” as they kicked the ball out for a 25-all draw in Saturday’s dramatic Test at Twickenham, and that the All Blacks would have gone for a win if presented with the same situation.
England had scored three tries in 10 minutes, with fly-half Marcus Smith converting two of them, to hit back from trailing 25-6, before they called it quits with the clock in the …