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Guscott column: England are finding their courage again

By Jeremy Guscott

Without a TMO England would have won this game and Sam Underhill’s fantastic finish would have gone down in history as one of the great Twickenham moments. But I’m afraid Courtney Lawes was offside, if only by inches.

The referee had given the try but after a review changed his mind, and that is the benefit of the TMO. That’s what they are there for and after watching the replays it was clear and obvious that Lawes was offside.

For Sam Underhill to turn world player of the year Beauden Barrett in and out, and then go down the line would have been a deserving try to win the game and topped off a magnificent performance from the young Bath openside. I thought he was one of England’s top players, if not the top player.

Against New Zealand you have to be within striking distance to have any chance – whether it be a penalty or drop-kick to win the game – otherwise they just keeping going away from you and England’s start to the game was superb.

Right from the kick-off they won a turnover and a couple of phases of clinical, well executed hard running from the forwards got them to the gain line, producing quick ball. Then Ben Young’s vision to send that pass over Rieko Ioane for Chris Ashton to score like that was brilliant. And it didn’t stop. This is how clinical good sides are. You get into positions to score and you take them. The drop –goal was another good decision to extend the lead before the 12-man driving maul made it 15-0.

There were signs of 2012 there in terms of England scoring tries and getting ahead and causing New Zealand problems. You know you need three tries to be within a good shout of beating the All Blacks in these conditions. England did what they would have practiced and made very few mistakes despite the rain.

They would have been on such a high after the second try but we all know the All Blacks will come back hard at you and be in the game at some stage and it just so happened it was the last ten minutes of that first half that they found their groove after an initial break from Damian McKenzie, who was a threat whenever he got the ball.

It was then New Zealand’s turn to show how clinical they were and McKenzie slid in beautifully from a neat Barrett inside ball when they had options queuing up outside in Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith.  Then they got a penalty and they were back in the game.

The defining moment for me was England’s decision to go for touch rather than take the three points just after half-time. Farrell would have been confident they could produce a carbon copy of their earlier pushover try but it didn’t happen. That was the chance to really challenge the All Blacks mentally by going that try ahead and putting them under massive pressure. And in these conditions especially, they make mistakes as we saw.

They’ve been the No.1 side in the world for a long time  and had the composure to set up Barrett’s drop goal and sneak ahead by a point rather than spreading the ball wide in the hope of another try. Barrett’s not renowned for his drop-goals but he nailed the important one just as Farrell did last week.

But England still had their chances at the end. A failed lineout around the 22  foiled them, something that malfunctioned badly in the second half, something you cannot afford against any side, let alone New Zealand.

Before all hell broke loose: England and New Zealand line up for the national anthems (photo: Henry Browne/Getty Images)

They will be disappointed because it was an opportunity to beat the No.1 side in the world. The performance was very high level and you could see the looks on the players’ faces that they are gutted and feeling a bit low. But the consolation is that England know that if they play with that intensity, that accuracy and make those decisions count you can beat any side in the world. But here is where New Zealand are different: every side in the world wants to beat New Zealand and they raise their game to it.

New Zealand face that every game and that’s why their level is so superior to the rest. England can get to that level when they play New Zealand, or Ireland, but all sides really struggle to get up for a game that isn’t against the best and that’s the challenge for the rest. Get up to the world class levels every time you play. If England can do that anything’s possible.

It was a simple performance based on big forward carries and played with a real intensity. Play like that with minimal mistakes you stand a great chance of beating most sides.

It’s not the Ford-Farrell flowing rugby that Eddie began his reign with, it is the more direct game plan I have advocated with Ben Te’o carrying hard and busting over the gain line through the inside-centre channel. It is our best way of playing,  and has brought so much success to  Exeter and Saracens.

Generally you have to fail to become better and if you don’t fail you’re unlikely to become the best. England have gone through a number of failures since the last Six Nations and opening two Tests in South Africa in June, and they’ve come out of it and showed in this game they have learned a lot of lessons about how to get across the line.

They displayed intensity, accuracy, execution and decision making and that’s why they got so close to the world’s best side.

Against Japan there is likely to be changes which may disrupt the side but it has to be done because the bulk of that pack have played two intense matches and will need rest to be fresh for Australia.

Zach Mercer will likely come in at No.8 and it’s up to him and the others to put their hands up for a place against Australia.

Japan will not be easy. They will want to make a statement ahead of the World Cup, although I expect England to win comfortably and finish with another victory against Australia.

That was just the second time Eddie Jones has lost at Twickenham and it’s a game they could have won. Be disappointed about the loss but don’t be about the performance – that was an 8/10 in very poor conditions and to run the All Blacks that close was impressive. Last week they got the decision, they didn’t this week.

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