OPINION: As the All Blacks narrowly survived their thorough examination from the English at Twickenham, their performance – and that of their rivals – threw out several talking points worth debating for the rest of the week.
Beginning of the end for SBW?
Many would argue the beginning of the end actually began long ago, but after a series of injuries and underwhelming showings in recent months, Sonny Bill Williams was under some pressure to produce a vintage performance.
Instead, he left early with his team on the back foot and replacement Ryan Crotty was instrumental in turning momentum around, providing the telling thrust that put Damian McKenzie over for their opening try.
The Crotty-Goodhue Crusaders midfield has proved a potent Super Rugby weapon and now looms as the answer at international level, heading towards next year’s World Cup.
At 33, after a long career spanning three very demanding codes, Williams’ body may have finally let him down. He may be able to hang on another 12 months, but the All Blacks are perhaps better advised putting their faith somewhere else.
Of course, Crotty has also had his own injury issues in recent times, so that 12 jersey may yet become a job-share situation, unless Anton Lienert-Brown can prove his credentials as a starter.
Maybe the abysmally wet conditions forced traditional gameplans out the door, but the first half hour of this test saw both teams depart from script.
With the All Blacks making early mistakes, England were able to take advantage by attacking wide down the flanks, resulting in the Chris Ashton try and Owen Farrell drop goal.
When New Zealand were able to retain possession, the English defence – take a bow, John Mitchell – simply wouldn’t allow them over the gain-line and forced them into an unfamiliar kicking game, not always to good effect.
That stalled their ability to turn the game around, and it wasn’t until they consciously decided to keep the ball in hand and build phases that they gained parity and eventually took control.
By contrast, the much-vaunted English kicking game was pinpoint. Their high kicks and chase had the All Blacks under constant pressure, which they dealt with, but no more.
In the final analysis, England, who needed four penalty goals to edge the Springboks last week, outscored the All Blacks two tries (and almost three) to one in this narrow loss.
The value of a drop goal
New Zealand rugby has long disdainfully regarded the three-pointer as a soft option that wasn’t worthy of our mighty world champion team – even when they weren’t world champions.
Even when world championships were being decided by that same ‘soft’ three-point option.
The All Blacks’ 2015 World Cup success featured two key droppies from Dan Carter in the latter rounds that suggested we had learnt our lesson, but that ghost returned to haunt us in the dying stages of the loss to South Africa this year.
So, with his team finally wresting control just after half-time, Beauden Barrett chose this occasion to convert his first international drop goal to continue their march.
That weapon is in the arsenal after all and opponents will have to respect that moving forward.
Game of centimetres
One of the great injustices of sport is that success and failure (and careers) often come down to mere fractions of seconds or metres.
Having gained control and threatening to bust the game wide open, the All Blacks almost lost it again through a mistimed kick from halfback TJ Perenara, charged down and gathered by Sam Underhill for the apparent match-winning try.
Hold all tickets, though – referee Jerome Garces checked upstairs and sure enough, England replacement Courtney Lawes was found to be centimetres off-side in his charge-down. No try.
Garces has been the villain before – Lions series, SBW red card – so maybe his influence on the result shouldn’t come as a surprise and perhaps his ledger with the All Blacks is now square.
That’s a cruel blow for the English, but a huge let-off for the world champions, who must surely take some huge lessons away from the encounter without having to suffer defeat in the process.
All Blacks bench strikes again
OK, this has become a real rugby cliché, but the New Zealand reserves again made a big impact, starting with the early entry of Crotty.
The other key contribution came from Scott Barrett, who stole two key second-half lineouts off the English attacking feed.
The middle Barrett has enjoyed some prolonged run with the top unit this year through Brodie Retallick’s injury issues and showed the benefits of that experience under pressure.
The fact he can play off the side of the scrum also means the All Blacks brains trust don’t need to break up arguably the world’s best locking combo late in tight matches.
Grant Chapman is Newshub online sports editor.