By Ivan Agnew
Having predicted in last week’s column that the English rose’s thorns could wound New Zealand in their Rugby World Cup Yokohama semi-final, I had hoped they wouldn’t be fatal.
Sadly they were. Full praise, however, for the majestic calibre of the conquerors 19-7 triumph in beating our blokes at their own game.
Playing for third against Warren Gatland’s Six Nations champions Wales this coming Friday wasn’t the farewell head coach Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read had hoped for. But no-one could doubt England’s superiority from their V for victory formation that met the haka to the final whistle.
Despite the gnawing pain, the All Blacks were gracious in acknowledging the better team won on the day.
Although Manu Tuilagi’s storming try from the outset wasn’t a knockout blow, the All Blacks were never allowed to recover from it as the English maintained pace and pressure that is normally New Zealand’s domain.
England’s scrum was stronger, as was the lineout dominated by Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes against the combined effort of Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Read and Scott Barrett.
Consequently Hansen conceded he had erred in playing the taller Barrett ahead of regular No 7 Sam Cane in the first half when the magnificent Itoje helped lively flankers, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, easily win the breakdown battle.
With halfback Aaron Smith deprived of quick ball, there was little space for Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett to work their magic against a relentless, hard-hitting defence.
In fact, nippy right wing Sevu Reece was the only All Blacks back to trouble England’s defence after Jack Goodhue’s early promise had been snuffed out.
Although Ardie Savea’s late try equalled Tuilagi’s early effort, England had two disallowed and were clearly dominant, playing expansive, 15-man rugby so different to the boring 10-man game that was once their staple diet.
For that, credit to wily coach Eddie Jones whose proud team equalled the All Blacks’ 18 consecutive tests winning record over two years.
Then came the fall when England finished fifth in the 2018 Six Nations won by Ireland before the title moved this year to a Welsh team that barely fired a shot in their dour 19-16 semi-final loss to South Africa.
On the basis of those performances the All Blacks should maintain their total dominance over Wales since 1953 in Friday’s battle for third. Likewise England are strongly favoured to beat the tough, stubborn Springboks.
Certainly the All Blacks will be eager to give coach Hansen and skipper Read a fitting farewell from international rugby after both have made momentous contributions to their nation’s cause.
Meanwhile there was no shame in the Silver Ferns losing their Constellation Cup netball series to the Australia by points differential in Perth after Diamonds squared it 2-2 with their 53-46 fourth test victory.
Since failing to medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the Ferns have responded hugely to the appointment of charismatic coach Noeline Taurua by overcoming Australia and England to become world champions in Liverpool.
Their overwhelming joy in winning that final will be an everlasting memory for players and supporters who will forgive the coach for erring in starting Bailey Mes ahead of Ameliaranne Ekenasio in the Perth decider.
Goal attack Ekenasio is the team’s most improved player and combines sweetly with the magical Maria Folau and tenacious captain Laura Langman.
Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer