The appointment of New Zealander John Mitchell as England’s defence coach in September of last year was not greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm by a sceptical English press.
The Bulls, who he coached in Super Rugby, had finished 12th in the league. The former England assistant was a demanding and fractious personality, we were told, and Mitchell wasn’t even first choice because Andy Farrell had turned it down. The New Zealander wasn’t even planning on living in England.
All that will be forgiven and forgotten after yesterday’s heroics because the Kiwi coach helped England beat the country of his birth – the nation he led at the 2003 World Cup – and into this year’s final with a defence display of excellence, accuracy, commitment and stamina that has rarely if ever been bettered and certainly not by the men in white.
New Zealand could only manage 44 per cent possession but that is usually more than enough because this All Blacks team have threats all over the park; just ask Ireland. Yet England kept them pointless in the first half and restricted them to one try. And even those seven points were a gift from a rare lineout overthrow by hooker Jamie George. The best attacking team in world rugby were made to appear as toothless as a jelly baby, harried and hurried into mistakes at every turn, losing their rag and the penalty count by 6-11.
Mitchell took his inspiration from Ireland. Not, obviously, the Ireland that collapsed so tamely in last week’s quarter-final but the Irsh side that beat New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin last November. Ireland won that match primarily because Garry Ringrose in the all-important 13 channel continually jumped out of the line to block off the wide channels to New Zealand’s attack because the Kiwis love nothing better than to stretch a defence.
For Ringrose read Manu Tuilagi who has never played better for England. I know it’s a cliche but the bulky Samoan can be a little lazy. It doesn’t quite compare with a World Cup semi-final, but when Edinburgh played the Tigers in a pre-season friendly at the Greenyards back in August of 2014 the visiting coaches kept up a more or less constant stream of encouragement/abuse aimed at their struggling centre from the sidelines.
“Manu get up, press, press. Manu get back, drift drift.”
Manu did both of those things yesterday. It takes incredible effort and discipline to race up and then back-pedal quickly when the ball is recycled while staying onside all the while.
On the odd occasion that New Zealand got on to the front foot yesterday or had numbers to spare, England’s defence changed from an “umbrella press” (with Tuilagi leading the line) to an old fashioned drift defence, which teams employ when they are prepared to concede ground to ensure their defensive line remains intact.
England’s defence was aided by crunching hits in the middle of the park – hold your hand up Maro Itoji and Courtney Lawes – and was further helped by having the “jackal brothers” in full flight. At the end of the first half Tom Curry made a superb turnover and, just minutes later, Sam Underhill did the same. If Curry was brilliant, Underhill was better and when Mark Wilson made a late appearance from stage left he too engineered a miraculous turnover not ten yards from his own try line. Watch while every other team in world rugby now fields two “loosies”!
In contrast, taking Scott Barrett, a lock by trade, off early in the second half for specialist openside Sam Cane was an admission by New Zealand boss Steve Hansen that he got that one wrong. Badly wrong. According to the stats England won that facet of the game 16-5 and Barrett made little or no contribution to the lineout.
Nothing the Kiwis did could break England’s defensive stranglehold. When they tried the kick-pass to the right wing, Tom May bundled Anton Lienert Brown into touch. When they tried to maul the England pack they lost the ball, twice. When they tried to kick high, and they rarely did it well, England defused the bomb.
The main takeaway from yesterday’s match is that a well-organised defence can beat an exciting attack. The purists may bewail that fact but you have to hope that Gregor Townsend was taking notes.
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