Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 1 December 2020

Magic Maro Itoje leads dominant England: Rugby World Cup semi-final talking points

Paul Radley offers his thoughts on a sensational performance by Eddie Jones' side against the mighty All Blacks

For the first time since October 6, 2007, and that Frederic Michalak pass, New Zealand lost a Rugby World Cup match as they were beaten by an irresistible England in Japan.

Manu Tuilagi’s second-minute try and four penalties by George Ford set up a 19-7 win, which means England will play for a second Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama next Saturday.

It was a match of endless indelible images. And not all of them happened during the 80 minutes of playing time.

The haka

Is it possible to really read anything into the haka? Does either side gain or lose an advantage, by way of a pre-match ritual they have either performed or watched a million times before?

There is no definitive answer, but the one before this match certainly felt pertinent.

England, for one thing, responded. Not for them the standard linking arms, standing on the 10-metre line, while trying to eyeball their opposite numbers.

Instead, they advanced from the edges, forming a V-shape that opposed the arrowhead the All Blacks had formed.

Joe Marler was furthest forward, yet still seemed curiously indifferent. And Owen Farrell smirked, as if to say: “We’ve got this.”

Dominant all over

Happily, this match was decided by neither an unfortunate card, nor a contentious call by the television match official.

Rather, England entirely outplayed the side regarded by most as the best team in the world. They could have had two more tries, Sam Underhill in the 25th minute and Ben Youngs just after half-time.

Each was disallowed after referring to the TMO. Underhill, because Tom Curry had obstructed Sam Whitelock’s path to the tackle, and Youngs, because of a handling mistake at a maul.

They were defensively dominant, too. New Zealand’s only points came from a botched lineout by England near their own tryline.

Otherwise, it seemed possible the All Blacks might be kept to nil for the first time since 1964.

Underhill overachieving

Not so long ago, England were derided for not being able to find a traditional openside flanker worth their salt. Now, they have two in the same XV, and both are formidable.

When they are not getting in each others’ way when attempting to score tries, Underhill and Curry and usually found affecting dominant, and often momentum-changing tackles.

On the hour against the All Blacks, Underhill made one such hit on Jordie Barrett that felt seminal. He sent the replacement New Zealand back reeling back, and prompted a knock on.

England won a penalty from the ensuing play, which gave them a 16-7 lead.

Magic Maro

It is lucky “Oh, Maro Itoje,” scans so perfectly with White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. Otherwise England’s supporters might have been out-sung by the, er, Irish in Yokohama.

In the first-half, “Fields of Athenry” was emanating from the stands, sung by pockets of Ireland supporters who had clearly stayed on after their quarter-final loss last weekend.

It was soon drowned out by the strains of the ode to Itoje. The love-in for the lock forward was well merited, too.

Itoje made 12 tackles, three turnovers, and won seven lineouts – including a crucial one stolen from New Zealand’s throw when they were dangerously placed.

And all that when directly up against an all-time great in Brodie Retallick, and Whitelock, who had been on the winning side in 18 successive World Cup matches until this point.

Grace in defeat

When New Zealand’s cricketers lost their World Cup final by zero runs against England in the summer, their captain Kane Williamson was almost comically magnanimous in defeat.

There are far greater expectations on New Zealand’s back-to-back world champion rugby players – but they do a decent line in generosity in defeat, too.

“We have to take that on the chin and so do the people back home,” Steve Hansen said, after his last match of any real significance before he steps down as New Zealand coach.

Then, even though he had been given leave to go after his television interview, he took back the mic to make sure he complimented Japan on their hosting of the World Cup. Classy stuff.

Updated: October 26, 2019 05:09 PM

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