England/New Zealand 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final — the end of a rugby era

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Credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images

I never thought I would say this but —

Defending champions New Zealand are out of the world cup. England are just one win away from reliving the glories of 2003 and lifting the Webb Ellis cup for the second time.

With England’s victory, the mythology of the invincible All Blacks has finally been broken. Prior to yesterday, since 2010, New Zealand had won 112 international matches — and lost just 11. They have been hailed without argument as the “most dominant team in the history of the world.”

But the age of Kiwi rugby supremacy is now over.

To be sure, New Zealand have been beaten before; Ireland and South Africa downed them last year, and Australia last summer.

But this was different. For a start, there is the fact that the opposition was England. Playing England is about history, it is about settling old scores. Even England coach Eddie Jones had admitted before the game that his team was the “most disliked team in the world.” Teams are just generally more up for battering the English.

Then there is the fact that those defeats to Ireland, South Africa and Australia had been part of a four-year working process to conjure up a world cup winning side. Every team experiments with selection and structure throughout this process. Occasionally this doesn’t pull off and teams learn lessons on the back of defeats.

This clash with England was a World Cup knockout game; everything they had done since November 2015 had been in preparation for this moment. The All Blacks put out a team to win (or, at least, they hoped could win).

Finally, New Zealand’s record, perhaps justifiably, created an aura of invincibility around them which had real consequences on the pitch. Ensorcelled and rattled, teams played to survive rather than to win. If they failed to clock up early points, the All Blacks started to build a lead, which few teams were capable of overturning. If they did, they failed to put daylight (say, 14 points) between the two teams, as England had struggled to do in their encounter with them at Twickenham last year. The All Blacks would then claw their way back into the game, ruthlessly exploiting gaps and vulnerabilities as the opposition lost stamina and structure in the second half.

Teams fail to imagine what is possible, that they actually could be better than the All Blacks.

So, New Zealand were theoretically at their peak, more prepared to dump this particular opposition out than any other team and their reputation of invincibility all but made it impossible to beat them anyway.

The error teams make when playing the All Blacks is to relinquish their lead. You must maintain and then expand that lead, which means taking the game to them rather than playing reactively once ahead. This was what Jones had meant when he called on his players to “change history.” “We want to write the script,” he explained, “we don’t want to be watching it.”

This is what England generally did. Furious in their offensive from the first whistle, England combined pace with accuracy in a thunder of opening phases, with Manu Tuilagi barrelling over the try line in just 98 seconds. to put England up 7–0.

They then dominated the next 20 minutes, just as they had a year ago, but struggled to match points to their endeavour, disallowed a try for obstruction. You worried that England would commit the fatal mistake of letting New Zealand back into the match. But a penalty kick by George Ford, just before half time, meant England were up 10–0 going into the sheds.

England had certainly benefitted from a selection error on head coach Steve Hansen’s part. His decision to start three locks, with Scott Barrett in at openside flanker, was a move designed to give New Zealand ascendancy at the set-piece. The change actually destabilised New Zealand’s lineouts, with three locks over-complicating its configurations. Hansen recognised this misjudgement at half time when he replaced Scott Barrett with Sam Cane at flanker. But by then the damage had been done — the spell had been broken. “They make mistakes,” Dallaglio remarked from the commentary box at half time, “they’re only mortal.”

The second half then became a case of game management, of getting daylight between the two teams. England were disallowed another try, this time for a knock on at the back of a driving maul by Jamie George. That sense of Kiwi encroachment rushed back. A soft try on the back of an England lineout gifted New Zealand a foothold in the game. The tension heightened.

But England remained focused. They retained control and kept their shape, forcing yet more penalties from New Zealand and slotting penalty kicks whenever they came. Their performance was sustained. The brutal blitz defence. The swarming, indefatigable doggedness at the breakdown. The crisp passing out wide. Sustaining their onslaught, England embodied pure conviction in almost everything they did.

It is a disappointing end to the Hansen era of Kiwi rugby hegemony for their fans. The All Blacks have been one of the most unstoppable forces in any sport in modern history. But world leaders in any sport inexorably fall from grace. All things must pass.

England will be favourites for the big prize this weekend. This means very little given New Zealand were favourites before Saturday; it depends entirely on what England team turns up next weekend. With South Africa standing in their way (the final of the four most dominant Southern Hemisphere teams to remain unbeaten by England in this tournament), the mood for England remains one of calm focus, but of cautious optimism.

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