TOKYO (Reuters) – All Blacks? This Rugby World Cup semi-final was all white.
In Yokahama on Saturday, it took just over a minute for England to breach New Zealand’s rugby citadel. By the end of 80 minutes they had well and truly sacked it.
Eddie Jones’s England players played with breathtaking power and precision to win 19-7, a result that not only puts them within touching distance of a second World Cup crown, but arguably re-calibrates world rugby’s pecking order.
“New Zealand are the gods of rugby so we had to take it to them and put them on the back foot as much as we could,” smiled Jones.
New Zealand were battered in possession, taunted by England’s superb handling, and kicked to shreds by George Ford. How they must have wished for the boot of Dan Carter or the Richie McCaw-ness of Richie McCaw.
Instead, almost 69,000 rugby fans witnessed that most rare of sporting apparitions: an outfought, outplayed and flustered New Zealand team.
“We were beaten by the better team,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said. “Take it on the chin. Hard to stomach but this is what happens in sport sometimes. Sometimes sport isn’t fair but tonight it was.”
DEMOLITION OF AN ICON
With more English territory, possession and set pieces won, the statistics of this clash tell their own tale, but this was about much more than figures and scores and percentages; this was the surgical, forensic demolition of a sporting icon.
Long the byword for rugby invincibility, the All Blacks had been unbeaten in 19 World Cup matches going back to 2007 – 18 wins and a technical draw after their clash with Italy here was cancelled due to a typhoon.
England’s record against the three-times World Cup winners had offered no real comfort — seven wins from 41 games, none at the World Cup and only one victory, in 2012, in their last 16 clashes.
Yet for all the pyrotechnics and theatrics with which organisers heralded this semi-final — thunderous Japanese drumming and flame cannons shooting fire into the darkening skies before kick-off – little could prepare spectators for what would unfold.
All day this had felt special. There is something about this England squad.
And when they metaphorically embraced the famous haka with a v-shape formation of their own before kick-off, rejecting absolutely the intimidation many nations feel at the sight of the traditional Maori ceremonial challenge, all bets were off.
“We knew we had to be in a radius,” skipper Owen Farrell said. “We wanted to not stand there and have them come at us. We wanted to have a respectful distance but we didn’t want to be just a flat line and have them come at us.”
Other teams have confronted the haka in novel ways before, but most of them have gone on to lose.
Not this England side, though, and with less than 100 seconds on the clock, a magnificent flurry of passing ended in centre Manu Tuilagi punching through the All Blacks’ defence from close range for a try.
Dominant England wasted a handful of chances, but added to their score just before the break through a George Ford penalty.
That half must have made for uncomfortable viewing for the whole of New Zealand as their All Blacks went in trailing 10-0, although some might have felt relief that the deficit was so small.
Their reputation as one of the greatest teams in any sport has been hard won, however, and it was perhaps inevitable England would be made to pay for some wasted chances.
Sure enough, just before the hour flanker Ardie Savea nipped in to touch down when England’s otherwise impressive lineout was caught dozing, and Richie Mo’unga converted. So much for all the play and all the pressure.
Enter that man Ford. Taking over the kicking from a limping Farrell, he ended up slotting four penalties for 12 points while New Zealand failed to add to their tally, and England eased to the finish line.
This New Zealand performance was ultimately characterised by poor discipline, moments of anger and some hot-headed decisions. Understandable, perhaps. The All Blacks are not used to losing.
But there was nothing even their inventive play could do to prevent being smothered by England’s white blanket.
For the All Blacks it will be time for reflection and rebuilding, while England reach their fourth World Cup final and first since 2007.
They will meet either Wales or South Africa in the Nov. 2 showpiece, seeking their second victory after 2003 when they became the first, and to date only, northern hemisphere country to claim rugby’s biggest prize.