In an edited extract from his new book, Heroics & Heartbreak, Jamie Wall gives his first-hand insight into how the All Blacks' World Cup dream came to an end, after following the team for 12 months.
For all the talk we've had to endure, all the thinly veiled, lazy dog-whistling designed to infuriate New Zealanders, the English have finally done it. They've come up with a plan that has sucked the life out of the All Blacks and thrown it back in their faces, leaving the New Zealanders flustered and wondering what just happened.
And the game hasn't even kicked off yet. Every time the haka has been performed during the tournament, it's had a little bit more of an edge thanks to Kieran Read and TJ Perenara's dual leadership. Fingers hover over keyboards awaiting some new development, but this time they come crashing down due to the audacious English response. We're sitting high up in the stands yet again, gazing down upon a full house at Yokohama International Stadium, and out in the middle the Englishmen have produced a devilishly simple yet stunningly effective move. They've formed an inverted V, surrounding the All Blacks on three sides. In military terms it would be a pincer movement, but in symbolic terms it immediately wrests attention off the haka itself. They're embracing their role of sneering, confident bullies with scant regard for tradition—indeed, the first reaction is to question whether what they're doing is even legal according to World Rugby's guidelines.
Even if it isn't, there is little anyone can do, although referee Nigel Owens attempts to wave the outer fringes of the English formation back behind halfway. Prop Joe Marler, who has proven himself to be never short of a word in his career, has positioned himself on the very far edge and facetiously shrugs and motions that he can't hear Owens or understand what he's being told to do. The haka is done without the drowning noise of 'Swing Low' this time. Everyone is in a bit of shock at what they're seeing, but that's nothing compared with what's about to happen next. England pull a switcheroo of their own off the kick-off, with George Ford flicking the ball to Owen Farrell to send over to the opposite side of the field than expected.
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Even though Aaron Smith clears for touch, the English get the possession they want straight away. The All Blacks' perceived plan to target the lineout is absent first up, with Courtney Lawes winning uncontested ball at two and Ben Youngs sending it to the midfield. After only 50 seconds and two English rucks, the All Blacks are already creeping offside and they're about to be caught out. Richie Mo'unga is defending one man in, out on the left wing next to George Bridge.
Elliot Daly spots that the gap between them is ripe for the picking and goes straight through on halfway. By the time Bridge catches him, the damage is done because Daly has all the momentum and frees a pass to Anthony Watson. The winger, who as a British & Irish Lion was on the receiving end of Sonny Bill Williams' shoulder in 2017, cruises past Jack Goodhue and through Beauden Barrett past the 22 as the clock ticks past one minute. Back the ball goes, over to the other side of the field, stretching the All Blacks thin and opening up what the English plan to exploit next.
There's a perfect exchange of passes between Lawes and Kyle Sinckler that sends Ford sailing past Read. Both men have their arms nice and free to make the ball move, because Samuel Whitelock and Joe Moody both charge in low, which is the way they've been focusing on defending ever since red cards started getting handed out at the start of the tournament. Mako Vunipola rumbles it close to the line, then Lawes again, who has timed his run to smash apart any remaining resistance. They're only a metre short and Manu Tuilagi sees that the openside is indeed very open, picking up the ball and crashing through a Moody tackle to score next to the posts. Time elapsed: 1 minute, 36 seconds. Farrell sends the conversion through the posts and the All Blacks, along with pretty much everyone else in the stadium, are wondering what the hell we just saw. Yes, it completely mirrored the start of the game last year at Twickenham, but this time it feels far more composed and clinical.
Especially when Tuilagi picks off a Beauden Barrett pass and sends Jonny May away for what should be another try. However, somehow Scott Barrett guns him down and saves the day. Last time, the All Blacks played a bit of a rope-a-dope. Tonight the English have landed a blow that's floored them in the very first round. It's insanely confusing, because the All Blacks haven't fired a shot and seem content with passively letting England do what they want with them. The All Blacks aren't helping themselves, either. The first 20 minutes sees them kick away valuable possession—most notably a bomb into the 22 that May takes under no duress at all for a mark. The resulting lineout drive is attacked by Maro Itoje, who rips the ball away and sets England up on halfway to attack again. It's insanely confusing, because the All Blacks haven't fired a shot and seem content with passively letting England do what they want with them.
In another throwback to last year, Underhill runs in to score but it's disallowed—although this time the TMO decision is far more cut and dried as Tom Curry has committed an obvious obstruction in the lead-up. But it doesn't matter. The signs are that if the All Blacks are going to salvage this match, it will take a massive turnaround not only from them, but from the red-hot English as well. Half-time sees the score push out to 10–0 after a Ford penalty, but really they should be up by 25 at this stage. Steve Hansen has coached 106 and a half All Blacks tests in his career, and now he needs to make the most important half-time speech of them all. First things first—the Barrett experiment has not worked, even though Scott has actually been one of the better performers on the park.
The English lineout is humming along nicely, but it's their ball-carriers who are doing all the damage by falling nose to the ground and recycling at lightning speed. Most importantly of all, the defence is absolutely destroying the All Blacks' ball-carriers. It seems as though Beauden Barrett is only ever touching the ball going backwards, and the kicking game has gone from bad to worse. England's, on the other hand, is working perfectly. Bombs go up, get contested and won, and are then followed up with long, raking kicks that are finding real estate more valuable than a Ponsonby villa. Up in the tightly packed media area, faces all around are stunned. Well, almost all. The last week has seen a steady influx of New Zealand media that have come up specifically for the business end of the tournament, so our contingent has swollen to around forty. The latecomers are too excited about simply getting here to really take on board that something terrible is happening, but we campaign veterans can already tell that the writing is on the wall. I go down and talk to Blair, the Newshub cameraman who braved the typhoon. He asks me what do I reckon. I tell him the All Blacks are f***ed.
Just after halftime and, whatever Hansen has said, England give the clearest indication that they are not going to make the same slip they did last year at Twickenham. Ben Youngs snipes in to score what should be the match-sealing try, but again it's disallowed by a slight knock-on in the lineout drive that precedes it. As it turns out the All Blacks do end up benefiting from Jamie George at the lineout. The problem is it's basically the only mistake the English make in the whole game, and it doesn't come through any bit of tactical genius. The English hooker simply lobs a bad throw over his jumper that falls into the waiting hands of Ardie Savea, who dives over from five metres out. That try and the conversion are the only points the All Blacks score in the game.
The man who masterminded that statistic is sitting up in the stands and probably feeling pretty vindicated right now. It's John 'The Journey' Mitchell, who has spent the better part of two decades bouncing in and out of coaching jobs before landing the role that finally has him on his way to the biggest prize in the game.The key defensive plays have been the kick-chase and rush defence, plus the almost psychic ability to target the All Blacks' next ball-carrier. It's seen when Jordie Barrett tries to run a kick back and is eviscerated by Underhill, meaning that his attempt at an offload is fumbled forward by Angus Ta'avao.
It's seen when lineout after lineout is won with the All Blacks simply standing around and watching. When Ford and Farrell both direct traffic and move behind the ruck to make sure there are always defenders ready to deal with anything the All Blacks throw at them. When the frustration gets too much and Samuel Whitelock of all people shoves Farrell to the ground after the whistle's blown, getting a penalty reversed. Mitchell, along with Jones, has out-thought the All Blacks. Many New Zealand fans blame Mitchell for the All Blacks losing a World Cup semi-final, when he was their coach in 2003.
Now we can do it again, but happily for him this time he's sitting in the triumphant coaches' box. Of course, by now that sickening feeling I felt last year in Dublin has been growing in the pit of my stomach. Around the crowd, I can see pockets of All Blacks fans suffering the same pain. It's moving down their arms and making their hands reach up and attach to their head, or cover their faces. It's making them stamp their feet when the ball is dropped yet again, sapping their will and rendering them silent. Most of all, it's wrapping around our hearts and slowly crushing us.
The clock moves past the 70-minute mark and England have made it a two-score game that the All Blacks have no hope of catching. The final whistle goes. The All Blacks gather in a circle in the middle of the field, then Kieran Read and some of the other players walk directly up the tunnel. The World Cup is gone.
It is Read's 34th birthday.
Extracted from Heroics & Heartbreak: Twelve months with the All Blacks by Jamie Wall. Published by Allen & Unwin. RRP$36.99. Out Tuesday 3 December.