England’s formation as New Zealand performed the haka symbolised what was to come. Instead of standing in a line, they formed a semi-circle with the two players on the extremes, Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler, ignoring the orders of the referee, Nigel Owens, and one of his assistants, Pascal Gaüzère, to move back into their own half.
They enclosed the All Blacks and did so from the moment the match started on a night when England were not going to take a step backwards for anyone. There was no reverse gear on their chariot and after kicking off to start the match in their opponents’ half, they scored a try after 98 seconds and the holders, who had not lost in the World Cup since 2007 and whose previous defeat to a team that was not hosting the event was in 1999, were unable to formulate a response.
It is not often that New Zealand have been out-thought but, having opted for four lineout targets in an attempt to control a perceived strength of England, they lost the battle on the floor to Tom Curry, who has more than a touch of Richie McCaw about him, and Sam Underhill, while also misfiring in the lineout where Maro Itoje roamed free and when the All Blacks did win a throw sabotaged their maul.
New Zealand had little ball to work with and even less that was quick and usable. England were able to narrow the point of their attack but, on the few occasions the All Blacks achieved width, carriers were ushered into touch in a masterly defensive display. There were times when it looked as if England had an extra man, which given the multidimensional nature of Itoje, a forward who excels at everything he does, they had in a way.
Eddie Jones had spent the week generating headlines, from talking about spies to mocking the servile nature of New Zealand’s rugby media. He did not get a rise from his opposite number, Steve Hansen, who played the role of senior statesman at his team announcement on Thursday, but he was not the target.
Jones knew everything would be magnified to the point of distortion; even a question from a British journalist to Brodie Retallick, asking the second-row if he knew about any more England players than the one he cited in 2014 when he confused him with a New Zealand politician, was blown up into a major story in a trivial pursuit.
Whether it had anything to do with Jones’s stirring, New Zealand’s discipline deserted them to the point where Sam Whitelock, one of their senior players, cost them a penalty reversal in the second half when he shoved Owen Farrell in the head with his palm after the whistle had blown. It showed how frustration turned into desperation as the leading team in the world rankings came a distant second in the physical contest where Underhill set the tone by thudding into Kieran Read and bringing the All Blacks’ captain, who had battered Ireland the week before, to a juddering, instant, match-defining halt.
Hansen, who had hoped to end his international coaching career in Saturday’s final rather than Friday’s play-off, was magnanimous in defeat, bridling in the after‑match media conference when a questioner wondered if only England had been hungry for victory. “If you want a rugby education, come outside and I will give you one,” he said. “It is disrespectful to say the All Blacks turned up not feeling hungry and it is a pretty average question. We played a team that was as desperate as heck to win the World Cup and we were not good enough.”
Nowhere near good enough. It was New Zealand’s biggest defeat in a match where they did not receive a red card since they lost to England at Twickenham in 2012 and there was an eerie symmetry with one of their other semi-final defeats, to Australia in 2003 in Sydney. The Wallabies were coached by Eddie Jones and in charge of the All Blacks was John Mitchell, now the England head coach’s defence man.
Like England this time, Australia started strongly and scored an early try to go 7-0 ahead. Then it was 10-0 and 13-0 before New Zealand fashioned a try to make it 13-7. Two more Australia penalties followed for a 19-7 scoreline, which is how it finished here, the same 12-point margin as 16 years ago. Jones said before that game, as he repeated last week, that to defeat the All Blacks you had to take the game to them from the start, hustle them out of their stride and not let up.
Which England did, dominant in defence and enterprising in attack. They had two tries disallowed and three times coughed up possession in their opponents’ 22. It would not have flattered them had they doubled their score and they maintained their concentration at the point in the second half when the holders had to abandon what was left of caution and run everything from everywhere.
There were echoes of Japan’s victory over Ireland when Jones said he had been planning for the match for more than two years, when he knew England were on a collision course with New Zealand, while their opponents had had a week to prepare. Hansen acknowledged that and as he left the media conference, he wearily walked down a long corridor arm in arm with Read, nodded at reverentially by local volunteers guarding entrances, two warriors denied a final conquest but whose imprint on the game remains indelible.
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