It seemed to start raining in the final minutes at Twickenham, a shower of fat drops of beer from the clear night sky. They fell as the fans up in the gods leapt to their feet and threw their pints above them. Given what they charge for the stuff around these parts, it is probably not something you would do unless you had lost the run of yourself. But then it has been a long time since Twickenham has seen anything like those crazily helter-skelter final minutes, when England peeled off one, two, three tries in the space of seven minutes, and turned an infamous defeat into a feted draw.
It was as if, Eddie Jones said later, someone had “thrown magic dust” over them. Could they have pressed on again and tried to win the thing? Marcus Smith decided to kick the ball dead and kill the game instead. Owen Farrell explained later it was a call they had taken together, because they did not think the team had enough forward momentum off the ruck. The bigger question is how the hell they ended up in a position where they even had to make the decision. You would have to watch the match back to begin to figure out exactly how they did it. It was undoubtedly a game of two halves, just that one of them was 70 minutes long!
For years, it’s been New Zealand who have hunted down leads, the idea they are in it until the very last minute is part of their brand. This time, though, it was England who did it. The All Blacks collapsed. They were a man down after Beauden Barrett had been sent to the sin-bin but it felt as though the long tour had caught up with the 14 men left on the pitch. They switched off, which is the mistake everyone else warns teams cannot afford when they play against them, and they happened to do it at the exact point England switched on.
Which meant the match ended up as one of the biggest rope-a‑dopes since Muhammad Ali came out swinging in the eighth. Good as England were in the finish, they sure took a hammering before it. The crowd at Twickenham had drowned out the haka with a swelling chorus of Swing Low, which eddied and flowed around the ground. Ten minutes later, they had been stunned into stony silence by the All Blacks’ fast start. England were ripped apart in the first half, shredded by a team playing at a level of intensity levels above and beyond what they are ready for.
New Zealand were 7-0 up before the pre-match firework smoke had even cleared from the stadium, after David Papalii picked off Jack van Poortvliet’s pass to Owen Farrell, and 14-0 up five minutes later, after New Zealand drove over from a lineout. They damn near had a third 10 minutes later, when Savea scragged Van Poortvliet at the back of a ruck and Mark Telea sliced across the width of the pitch to the far corner, but it was disallowed by the TMO.
They did get it 50 minutes in, with a brilliant bit of razzle-dazzle when Brodie Retallick ripped the ball off of Sam Simmonds and Beauden Barrett chipped it across field to Caleb Clarke who switched the ball to Rieko Ioane. Ioane shot away into the wide open spaces behind England’s line, he and his team well beyond England’s reach.
England had blown their own opportunities. They had plenty of power, enough to push the All Blacks back into their own 22, but didn’t have the precision needed to do anything telling once they had got them there. Their first attack ended when they were penalised as they tried to drive their way over from a lineout, their second when they lost the ball in a knock-on during the last charge for the line. And again, in the second half, a series of pick-and-go drives ended with a technical penalty as they tried to bully their way over New Zealand’s tryline.
In among it all, almost unnoticed, there was one thing they were doing well – and that was surviving. Before the game, Farrell, who was playing his 100th Test, spoke about his favourite moments from his career. The ones he settled on were all when they had faced the greatest adversity. He mentioned the World Cup semi-final in Yokohama, and how they closed out the match after the All Blacks had scored and started to claw their way back into it, and that famous game in Wales when Elliott Daly scored in the corner to win it in the final minutes. “It is probably the moments that test you that you remember most.” Well he must have loved this match.
England were buried, 19 points down, with nine minutes to go, when they finally came alive. At that point the distance between where England are, and where they want to be, was starting to feel so wide that it was unbridgeable. And then all of a sudden, they snapped it back shut again, and started playing the way they always say they can and will.
For a long time now Jones has been living off the promise of what his team will be capable of, one day, and here, spurred on by the desperation of the occasion, his team finally gave us a tantalising glimpse of what they can do.