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A Forward Pack's Worth of Observations from the Weekend

1) England was the better team

From the moment they confronted the haka front-side on, they had the All Blacks covered. Every move, every step.

That pre-match confrontation set the tone, and may well have jolted the All Blacks focus, which was then compounded by a brilliant England start and the steady building of scoreboard pressure. 

Mentally, physically, tactically, it was a masterful Eddie Jones strategy carried out to a T             

There have been times over the past decade when the All Blacks have dropped their standards and lost, but it’s hard to remember when they were was last so out thought and out played.

In the end you’ve just got to give credit where it’s due.

2) We’d kind of been forewarned

In 2014 New Zealand hosted the World Rugby Under 20 Championship.

It was won by a Springbok team centred on the prodigious talents of Handre Pollard and Malcolm Marx, who in the final edged an England team led by the imposing Maro Itoje.

Both fielded big strong packs, the England forwards already pumped up by the heavy gym training favoured in the northern hemisphere, South Africa pumped up by a high protein diet and whatever else they ingest while at school. 

New Zealand fielded a young, comparatively light team that was reliant on the attacking genius of Damien McKenzie and came third.

3)  Did the All Blacks Overthink It?

With the glorious benefit of hindsight, possibly, although not to the degree of 2007 and the infamous Three R’s. 

The shared series against the Lions in 2017 triggered major concern over rush defences, and along with the prospect of confronting bigger, more muscular forward packs, saw the All Blacks coaching staff go all-in on a lightning fast attack plan.

They thought it would be perfect for the quick, dry conditions expected for the tournament (which didn’t really eventuate), and it worked well enough to beat South Africa, and brilliantly against Ireland.    

But not against an England team that dominated the forward exchanges and were therefore allowed to dictate terms.

They were shut down on attack, and it took the arrival of Sonny-Bill Williams, New Zealand’s biggest, most powerful back, to even start piercing the England defence.

4) Did They Get the Selection Right? 

If you’re desperate to find something to blame, then this might provide another straw to clutch at.

In going all in on speed and mobility, the All Blacks left out two big powerful props in Owen Franks and Karl Tu’inukuafe.

Franks had certainly become ineffective around the park, and Tu’inukafe had been battling health issues. But the Big K looked healthy playing for North Harbour and might have provided a foil to the full value England got out of Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler. Might have, that’s all.  

Beau’Unga was not a reason they lost. They just didn’t get much of a chance to impact on the game. Again, credit to England.

The selectors deviated from the successful use of Save, Cane and Read as a loose trio. Bringing in Scott Barrett was designed to give them more physicality and boost the lineout, but it just didn’t come off, which takes you back to that bit about overthinking things.   

5) But Hey, Let’s Not Get Too Down On It

Let’s remember what this team has achieved.

Since bombing out in 2007, and stuttering in 2009, they have spent 10 years setting the bar at new heights.

There’s a reason why only this one team has won back to back World Cups, it’s a damned  difficult thing to do, be it because of the loss of key players to retirement or injury, other teams raising their standards, targets on the back, or just a general debilitating fatigue from the pressures and expectation that goes with being top dog.

These guys have played some of the most exhilarating rugby ever seen, they have set a fantastic standard on and off the field, they have represented their people, their country and their game with great pride and great performance.

It’s nice to see that even some of their most ardent critics have acknowledged that. Well they would, now the All Blacks have been beaten, wouldn’t they?

You just can’t keep on winning forever. It’s just not possible.

It’s not that long ago some people were bemoaning the fact that the All Blacks were winning too easily and there is little doubt that there were people in some very high places who were desperate for that dominance to end. 

England or South Africa, whoever it is, let’s see how they go dealing with being the team everyone wants to beat, or see beaten.

6) And There’s Still Work to be Done, Right?

Darn right there is. The playoff for third and fourth may be the game no-one wants to play, but it’s still a game that must be won.

For starters it gives Warren Gatland a chance to coach Wales to their first win over the All Blacks in 66 years. That would be no way for Hansen, Read and co. to bow out.

Sentiment should not be allowed to dictate selection. This is not the rugby equivalent of Elton John’s farewell tour. They’ve got to put their best team on the park.

And if you take the WR Rankings at all seriously, a win could see then back up to at least second, as if that really matters, depending on the result of the final.

7) Talking of Which, The Final. 

England have the decided advantage of an extra day to prepare, while the Springboks will be made aware that no team has ever lost a pool match and gone on to claim the Webb Ellis Trophy.

Eddie Jones knows the Springbok mindset, having been the (largely uncredited) architect of their 2007 success, and he will have a strategy for this one too.

Not that you need to be a Rugby Einstein to work out what the Boks will bring. 

It really all points to an England win.

It’s not hard to imagine though, that most neutrals around the world will favour South Africa. England just aren’t that well liked.

8) And Finally, Fins Up on a Great Domestic Season

No-one in Nelson seemed too bothered about the World Cup.

The Mako capped a brilliant 12-win campaign in the Mitre 10 final, overcoming a Wellington team that played with tremendous character, but just lost their grip at key moments.

It’s worth remembering that 10 years ago, a group of “major” provincial unions tried to get Tasman, along with Northland, Manawatu and Southland kicked out of the NPC, while the Mako concept came under heavy fire from within the alliance.

To have come through that, get out from under the coat tails of the Crusaders and now be top of the heap in NZ provincial rugby is due to some very dedicated, determined, and creative people.

Congrats also to Canterbury for their three-peat in the Farah Palmer Cup, the Otago Spirit for their Farah palmer Cup Championship win, the Bay of Plenty in the Mitre 10 Championship, and to North Otago in the Meads Cup, and South Canterbury in the Lochore Cup.

It might have been in the shadows of RWC, but it was a great domestic competition.