There is something about England facing New Zealand that always seems to produce fireworks.
Three years ago Eddie Jones’ team ousted the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup semifinals after one of their all-time great performances. A year earlier New Zealand beat them by a single point at Twickenham, while a dominant England won 38-21 in 2012 — their last victory against the All Blacks on home soil.
Saturday’s encounter was no different. Jones’ side somehow rallied from three tries down to secure a 25-25 draw thanks to two TMO-delayed tries from Will Stuart and another brilliant effort from Freddie Steward. The boos that could be heard when Marcus Smith kicked the ball out of play past the 80-minute mark said it all about how England had turned around a contest in which they had largely looked dead and buried.
The actual fireworks came before kick-off, although they felt superfluous. Everybody knows how much England-New Zealand matters to both sets of fans. That it is so rare only adds to the sense of occasion each time the two sides meet — this was just the third time Jones had faced the All Blacks since he took over as England boss in 2015.
There was further significance behind Saturday’s meeting, as Owen Farrell racked up his 100th appearance in an England a shirt — a number matched by Brodie Retallick for the All Blacks.
Much had been made of how England would respond to the haka in the build-up to this game. In the 2019 semifinal Jones’ team lined up in a V-shape formation to counter the Maori war dance, while the image of Owen Farrell smirking became one of the defining memories from that 19-7 victory. This time England linked arms, with Twickenham doing its part as fans sung a deafening version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
It was exactly what England forwards coach Richard Cockerill — who himself memorably face down the haka in 1997 — had encouraged the Twickenham crowd to do before this match. But he had also pointed out how it would count for little if England could not back it up with an impressive performance on the field.
For more than 70 minutes, that looked beyond Jones’ team. Jack van Poortvliet’s early error seemed to set the tone for the first half as he passed straight to the onrushing Dalton Papali’i to run home New Zealand’s first try in the fourth minute. Codie Taylor added another moments later, while Rieko Ioane snuffed out a mini England revival at the start of the second half when he raced through to put further daylight between the two sides.
“I thought we played with tremendous spirit in the first half, I thought New Zealand were superb in the first half,” Jones said. “I can’t recall a New Zealand side playing as well as they did in the first half: aggressive, sharp around the ruck, good attacking kicks — and we just had to hang in there.”
When Beauden Barrett’s drop goal made it 25-6 to New Zealand, it looked as if it would be yet another step backwards for England under Jones. But a Barrett yellow card and Stuart’s first try resulted in a chaotic closing spell. Jones’ replacements made the difference as Steward went over in style before Stuart crossed again, and Smith’s kicking drew England level — although New Zealand boss Ian Foster admitted he was surprised by Smith’s decision not to go for the win.
“Was I surprised? Yeah I was,” Foster said. “All I know is if we flipped it over I would have liked our guys to have a crack, so I’m not sure what their tactics were.”
The draw was another reminder of both teams’ vulnerabilities. New Zealand have endured one of their poorest years in terms of results, with a first series loss to Ireland on home soil followed by losses against South Africa and Argentina. England, meanwhile, finished a second consecutive Six Nations campaign with just two wins earlier this year but then claimed an impressive series win in Australia despite losing their first game.
Foster joked there would be two news conferences — one for the first 70 minutes and the other for the last 10.
“To come away with a 25-25 draw is probably something we’re pretty disappointed with,” Foster said. “I felt our first 70, to me we really played the sort of rugby that we want to get to. We had a great tour and we were pretty determined to come to this game up against a team that was very physical against us three years ago.”
With less than 10 months to go until the World Cup, both teams are a work in progress. England will look to bolster their credentials when they face their 2019 conquerors South Africa next week, while the All Blacks will be pleased to have closed out a difficult campaign by their standards. Whenever their next encounter takes place, you expect both sides will relish it.
“The crowd was absolutely fantastic, which definitely lifted the players. So we’re grateful to the 81,641 that were there — I don’t know what happened to the other ,” Jones said. “They’ll be kicking themselves, and we hope there’s 82,000 next week, complete, because it’s going to be a hell of a game.”