Sir Clive Woodward is not a fan of the expression ‘Finishers’. His understandable argument is that all players should be capable of playing 80 minutes. But with all due respect to Sir Clive, England’s finishers nearly pulled off a remarkable victory over the All Blacks on Saturday.
Messrs. Dave Ribbans, Mako Vunipola, Will Stuart, Freddie Steward, and Henry Slade were at the heart of an England revival from 25-6 down to finish level at 25-25. Marcus Smith kicking the ball out with the last play, with the All Blacks scrambling with 14 men down was another talking point, after a very good day for England’s finishers.
Charlie Inglefield previews a chaotic but thrilling day out in Twickenham and the impending visit of the Springboks.
England’s ‘finishers’ nearly get England home
For 70 minutes New Zealand dominated England with Eddie Jones facing the prospect of another difficult week. Enter a raft of replacements to try and turn round a disappointing England team hamstrung by continuous errors. Suddenly England decided to run with conviction, direction, and more importantly pace. Mako Vunipola and Dave Ribbans made huge inroads with their direct ball carrying which in turn allowed Marcus Smith to pull the strings in attack.
Passes stuck, tackles were broken and the likes of Dave Ribbans were offloading to set England’s backline alight. Three tries were scored in five minutes, two by the rumbling Will Stuart and a glorious try to Freddie Steward. It begs the question of where was this game plan for the previous 72 minutes. To be fair to England, they had managed to break the All-Blacks defensive line through Tuilagi, and Jonny May previously. But these promising passages of play were broken down by a ravenous All-Black back-row who turned England over regularly.
Issues remain; despite the promising finish
England did remarkably well to force a draw against the All Blacks having come from 25-6 down. Despite the positives of the last 10 minutes, England was emphatically second best to New Zealand for most of the match.
The world’s best player Ardie Savea (in this writer’s opinion) stamped his class all over England, especially at the breakdown with his parter in crime, Dalton Papalii. van Poorvliet had his toughest day at this level and England were second-best in all facets of the game.
Why was this case? It still looks like England’s on-field mindset is not where it should be. The game plan of the last ten minutes, all be it that England had to chase the game and therefore give the ball some air, was entirely different to what we saw in the first 70 minutes. Why would Marcus Smith, who so often has been the catalyst of some stunning last-minute fightbacks with Harlequins, choose to smack the ball into touch?
The All Blacks were all over the place, a man down and England could and should have backed themselves to test New Zealand’s defence one last time. Three tries in a ten minute period would suggest that the All Blacks were there for the taking. It was like England were relieved to get a draw.
The Springboks will unleash
After a tough couple of losses, the Springboks bounced back to form with an emphatic dismantling of Italy. Their renowned power game was on show and they will be primed to unleash on England after a long season. England will know what is coming, but Eddie Jones will still need to think carefully about his selections.
If we look back to last year’s match, England’s pack as expected was put under huge pressure by the Springbok forwards. Despite this, led by Henry Slade and Joe Marchant, England cut through South Africa’s much-vaunted defence. The Boks will look to batter England’s pack into submission and then utilise the skills sets of Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe to finish any opportunities that come about.
England however will be buoyed by two key players in the Springbok lineup that won’t be there next Saturday. Handrie Pollard and Lukhanyo Am. South Africa have struggled to find a fly-half in this autumn series and Am’s all-round class has also been sorely missed. It is why Jones must consider attacking the Springbok 10/12 channel and be brave with his selection.
Slade in at full-back
Henry Slade’s inclusion possibly at full-back with Freddie Steward shunted to the wing would be one option. I have written previously about this being a poor selection given the outstanding skills of Steward – Jones tried this against France in this year’s Six Nations – with no impact. But, with South Africa’s kicking game, having Steward on the wing is not a bad idea.
Henry Slade is talented but does he have the ability to deal with the Springbok bombardment at fullback. The benefit of having Slade in whilst maintaining the axis of Smith, Farrell and Tuilagi is the running angles that the Exeter man can provide to England’s attack. Slade’s cameos against Japan and against the All Blacks have been significant. Slade has straightened England’s attack and utilised the ever-improving running abilities of Freddie Steward as a result.
Ribbans to lock in beside Itoje
I would also be tempted to bring in Dave Ribbans to partner Maro Itoje in the second row. Ribbans was excellent against the All Blacks and against his fellow countrymen next week, he could be very useful to England. Jonny Hill has been solid this autumn but he does not possess the kind of skill sets that Ribbans brings with his offloading. What may save Hill is the obvious line-out threat that the Springboks have.
It would not be surprising if Jones reverts Itoje back to the blindside in order to maintain three key line-out jumpers. So much of South Africa’s game is based around the lineout and the scrum. England must be aware of that but not go into their shells because of it.
van Poortvliet had a really tough afternoon but he did not die wondering and that is why he should start against the Boks. Sam Simmonds was again industrious and should also keep his place for next Saturday.
The conclusion has to be that England got out of gaol against New Zealand, and must use the positives from the final ten minutes as a blueprint to starting their final International for 2022 fast against the Springboks. Otherwise, it could be a very long afternoon for Eddie Jones and his men.
England v South Africa – Saturday, 26 November. Twickenham
“Main photo credit”