If there is one thing England must do if they are going to beat New Zealand and reach the World Cup final it is to deny them quick ball. Ireland were not able to do that in the first half and New Zealand had a field day. The game was in effect over by half-time because the All Blacks bossed the breakdown.
I have 100% belief that England are capable of that. It is not entirely reliant on Tom Curry and Sam Underhill but judging by their performances against Australia they are more than able to deny New Zealand the kind of ball they thrive on. It is not always turnovers – it is often just slowing the ball down because that has such an impact on the depth of the opposition’s attack. Ireland could not do that because the All Black back-row trio of Sam Cane, Kieran Read and Ardie Savea were totally dominant. I thought Read in particular answered all those questioning his form, as shown when he blasted through Rory Best from a standing start.
We always tend to see three seconds as the benchmark. Anything faster than that is quick ball but as Australia ran out of steam against England that would have been up around four. The difference between that and how quickly New Zealand were recycling was marked and that meant forwards such as Brodie Retallick and Joe Moody were running on to the ball and winning collisions. Ireland, on the other hand, had to check their runs and often received the ball when stationary.
I was also very impressed with New Zealand’s defence. It isn’t talked about all that much; most people concentrate on their attack, their ability to create things, to be ruthless from opponents’ mistakes, but their defence was first-class against Ireland. I saw an extra edge to their line speed. There was not a lot of creativity from Ireland which made it easier, but New Zealand’s tight five – notably Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Moody – put a lot of pressure on their attack and they lost all their go-forward. We’re going to see two extremely well-organised defences and it will be fascinating to watch both of them try to nullify each other’s attack.
I can’t see England changing their ways for one moment. This is knockout rugby and because of that it is hard to argue with Eddie Jones moving Owen Farrell back to fly-half, particularly with the benefit of hindsight considering how well he played. England will kick accurately, put pressure on New Zealand’s wings and Beauden Barrett at full-back and they will look to squeeze, suffocate and strangle. I imagine their line speed will go up another notch – they’ve been flirting with the offside line but they are not getting called up on it so of course they should keep doing it until they are pinged and then adjust.
England will also target the set piece. New Zealand’s scrum has been rock-solid but I do believe the lineout is an area where England will think they can have some joy. I would not be surprised in the slightest to see George Kruis come back into the side because he is their top lineout caller. They will look to control territory and keep the ball in the right areas of the field, so being able to disrupt New Zealand’s lineout could be very significant.
New Zealand, on the other hand, will be waiting for the game to become unstructured. They will have to be patient but their ability to do that against Ireland impressed me. They did not force things; they realised when the momentum had been lost and they just needed to keep chipping away until it built back up again and then strike.
The decisive factor will be whether New Zealand can stop England’s power game and what happens if they do. Looking back at the first Test of the British & Irish Lions tour two years ago, all the talk was that the Lions had the edge up front but that is where the All Blacks took them on and why they won the game. If England cannot get their power game going, get their big carriers over the gain line and get the ball wide after two or three phases, then I wonder how they will react. Only George Ford has the creativity and the ability to up the tempo from the bench, so there will be a huge onus on him if that does happen.
What New Zealand cannot allow to happen is for England to start building a lead. As Farrell alluded to after the Australia match, England did what they needed to do once they had got themselves in front. It is not always pretty but it works, especially in a World Cup semi-final.
As a result I expect New Zealand to have a massive focus on slowing down England’s power game. They’ll be getting off the line and trying to spook the distributors and ensuring that the ball does not get to the outside channels. They will in effect try to say to England: ‘That isn’t working, so what else have you got? How can you cope if the game becomes unstructured?’ England do have players who can cope well – I think of Jonny May and Anthony Watson – but I just wonder whether they have enough experience of knowing exactly how to handle it on this kind of stage.
I’m backing the boys in black but if I’m being honest it’s the toss of a coin. It’s such an evenly matched semi-final – a classic North versus South battle – and whichever team are able to impose their style of how they want the game to be played will end up in the final. I can’t wait.