England vs The All Blacks
To win a World Cup it seems you need to crash out of the last one during the group stages in embarrassing fashion. You then need to beat the holders in the semi-final. You must be captain by an Eoin/Owen and have an Australian coach. At least that’s what the cricket and rugby teams have shown us!
It’s been quite the year of sport for Britain. Lewis Hamilton looks certain to win another F1 Championship whilst another great – Andy Murray – looks to be back playing special tennis having won an ATP tour title earlier this month. Liverpool are champions of Europe and the England Cricket team are the champions of the world. Dina Asher Smith is the fastest woman over 200m and Katrina Thompson Johnson is the best female multi discipline athlete in the world. The English ladies football team proved that they’re one of the best teams around and Raheem Sterling is now unquestionably in the top five players on the planet. Just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any better for British sport the England rugby team played New Zealand in a Rugby World Cup Semi Final. A New Zealand team that hadn’t lost a World Cup game for 12 years and one who looked as good as ever on their route to the semi-final. What happened next was scarcely believable and it will go down in the annuls of Rugby history.
If England have produced a better 80 minutes of rugby then nobody cheering in the stands in Yokohama or those hiding behind sofa’s back home can remember it. Playing against the All Blacks you know you’re going to face the ultimate sporting challenge and that they’ll be moments in the game, often a number of moments, where the black jerseys of New Zealand would dominate and it was about how England would dig in, how they’d survive against the inevitable onslaught that was going to come their way. Instead, what played out was a comfortable England win. Yes, the word comfortable was used. England were immense. They strangled New Zealand who staggeringly never looked like scoring a try (bar the one where England got a lineout wrong). They had next to no territory in the England twenty two and were on the receiving end of a staggering 16 turnovers – no team has won more at this World Cup. Indeed, the last time England won that many turnovers was back in 1987 against Japan.
England, through Manu Tuilagi, inflicted New Zealand’s earliest ever try conceded in World Cup History. They looked shellshocked. Unable to deal with the imperious Itoje and the immense Curry and Underhill who drove them back at every occasion. Such was their dominance that Scott Barrett was hooked at half time after a half where New Zealand had scored no points and never threatened to do so. That’s only happened to them once before. Amazingly, Leicester City would score more goals than New Zealand got points in this game.
So it continued in the second half. The Kiwi breakdown was a shell-shocked mess with Underhill and Curry tearing it apart. Ford and Farrell, who ran off a nasty looking leg injury, set the ferocious tempo for England by pinning New Zealand back with clever kicking. In fact, if you go through every element of the game England dominated it. They battered New Zealand in the lineout, conceded half the number of penalties, bossed the breakdown, kicked far better and also looked more dangerous through the hands making far less mistakes. The tone had been set when Owen Farrell gave a devilishly wicked grin to the Haka to show just how unaffected England were to be playing a team of the statue of the All Blacks.
At the final whistle there were no major celebrations. The players calmly walked off the pitch and Farrell gave an interview that showed it was very much job half done. England have got a final against South Africa on Saturday and so celebrations will be kept on ice until then. You have to think England go into that game as favourites. South Africa seem to only have the one way to play which was in evidence against Wales on Sunday – a dour kicking game that tries to strangle the life out of the opposition. England though, seem to be too good. They seem to be able to mix up their play and this team, unlike 2003, haven’t even reached their peak. What this team could go on and do in world rugby for the next 4-8 years is frightening. First though, they must win Saturday and if they do then it’s hard to remember a better year of sport for this country of ours.