Gifford: England had courage but that was all

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 22/06/2014
Chris Robshaw
Getty Images
COURAGEOUS: Captain Chris Robshaw leads the England side off the field after their third test loss to the All Blacks in Hamilton.

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OPINION: Winning will always come first in a test match. It feels even more important when a side is snapping at the heels of a record-winning streak for first-tier teams.

But there were some huge points proved in Hamilton last night too.

Let's start with the All Blacks. Anybody but a cynical All Black detractor would probably have to agree they're not too old, they're not running out of steam, and they're not running out of ideas.

The first 40 minutes against England was a triumph for disciplined, accurate, decisive, and, at times, daring rugby.

Bar an uncharacteristic forward pass from Ben Smith to Julian Savea and England could have turned round more than 30 points down.

This England side has deserved credit all series for courage and so the second-half fightback wasn't really a surprise. The problem for them though is that they're desperate to stop being gallant losers, and last night there was never any real prospect of them ever being anything more than that.

Wing Marland Yarde is not only dynamic, but also reads where the openings may appear. The problem for England is that too many of the other players in white are slightly pedestrian, and lapse into error when the blowtorch goes on.

Individual All Blacks (especially those who had been struggling a little) on the other hand? Cory Jane said during the week he had to play like Cory Jane. He did.

The real Jane isn't the slightly hesitant, error-prone man of the first two tests. The real Jane is basically a cheeky bugger, who sees opportunities on the field where a less imaginative wing would see only blocked paths.

The real Jane gets the ball a metre from the touchline with a big, threatening opponent in Yarde lining him up for oblivion, and steps inside his man, makes a brilliant line break, and feeds the ball to Aaron Smith for a terrific try.

Aaron Cruden? The faith Steve Hansen and Co. had in him was repaid with wildly inflated interest.

Over the last two weekends we've seen him play his way back into form after the long recovery from a broken thumb. He looks in the groove again, and to emphasise the point it was a Cruden break who set up the second of Savea's tries. When he wasn't running with his old freedom, Cruden was kicking his goals, and generally looking like a man very comfortable in his own skin.

It was a small surprise when he was subbed just after halftime but it would have taken a near miracle for England to recover from where they were, and bringing Beauden Barrett into the game means there's a reasonable chance some attacking lightning may strike.

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Then there was the return of Kieran Read, which held both fascination and fear.

He's such an honest player, and straight-shooting man, anyone with even a hint of empathy couldn't have helped but flinch at the first contacts since concussion kept him off the field all those weeks ago.

The first time he touched the ball, at the back of a messy All Black scrum, things went horribly wrong, but after that first minute it was pretty much the Read we know.

There were clean lineout takes, a couple of strong tackles, and one surge at the 15-minute mark that reminded us what we've missed.

I was hoping for a duel with England's Billy Vunipola, who may look like a refugee from a world-all-you-can-buffet record attempt, but is massive (at 126kg he's 16kg heavier than Read), and can motor.

The idea was rendered moot by a sin binning but we saw enough to see that while Billy has the beef, Read has the sharp edges.

- Sunday Star Times

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