YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — Even facing up to the pre-match haka, England stole a march on defending champion New Zealand.
Respect for customary All Blacks practice? Not in this Rugby World Cup semifinal.
Reserve prop Joe Marler wasn’t the only England player standing on New Zealand’s side of halfway when the All Blacks performed their famous challenge on Saturday, but he barely budged when a match official gestured to him about his breach of convention.
After shocking the two-time defending champions with a try to center Manu Tuilagi in the second minute, England didn’t retreat one bit. And four years after being unceremoniously dumped out in the group stage of the World Cup it was hosting, England reached its first final in 12 years with a 19-7 upset over New Zealand.
The All Blacks hadn’t lost a World Cup game since 2007, had never lost to England at a World Cup, and went into the semifinal on a six-game winning streak in head-to-heads and having won 15 of the last 16. All those streaks are over.
Much will be made of England’s V-formation that straddled both sides of the halfway during the haka. New Zealand captain Kieran Read said it wasn’t a factor because it wasn’t part of the game. It was, though, a clear statement that England wasn’t going to give the All Blacks any chance to get on the front foot.
“We wanted to not just stand there and not let them come at us,” England captain Owen Farrell said. “We wanted to keep a respectful distance. And be respectful, but we didn’t want to just stand in a flat line and let them come at us.”
England’s Australian coach Eddie Jones had spoken all week of how vulnerable the All Blacks were as the hot favorites, despite describing them as the best team in sport.
“New Zealand is a god of rugby,” Jones said in a comment translated from Japanese. He added, in English: “So we wanted to take it to them, show we could take the game to them. We wanted to put them on the back foot as much as we could.”
Objective achieved. Jones strikes again.
Jones coached Australia to the 2003 final which ended in an extra-time loss to England — so far the Northern Hemisphere’s only Rugby World Cup crown.
He was a consultant on South Africa’s title win in 2007, sealed with a victory over England, guided Japan to a shocking win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup pool stage and has now got England to the final.
“We’ve had 2 ½ years to prepare for it. They’ve had a week to prepare,” Jones said, recalling how England targeted this game when the tournament draw was made. “We’ve been unconsciously preparing for this.”
The plan doesn’t stop there.
“We set out four years ago … we wanted to be the best team in the world and we’re not the best team in the world,” Jones said. “But we’ve got an opportunity to play in a game where we could be and that’s the only thing we’re concerned with.”
England will next play the winner of Sunday’s semifinal between two-time champion South Africa and Wales. Four years ago, no northern teams reached the semis. After Saturday, teams from the north have at least a 50-50 shot of winning it.
The New Zealanders rallied from 15-0 down to win their last meeting against England 16-15, but this time England didn’t give them a chance. And that included two tries disallowed by the Television Match Official.
“There’s no shame in getting beaten by them,” New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said, but “there’s a lot of hurt.” What hurt Hansen more was the suggestion that the All Blacks didn’t turn up hungry to win. He invited a reporter to step outside the news conference room for daring to question his team’s commitment.
England always led after Tuilagi’s try, which Owen Farrell converted. Flyhalf George Ford kicked four penalties to keep the scoreboard pressure on.
New Zealand was overwhelmed in almost every aspect of the game, with even its try coming from an England mistake when hooker Jamie George overthrew at a lineout. Ardie Savea collected and dived over in the 57th minute.
England made fewer tackles — 145-161 — but made them count in a system sharpened by defense coach John Mitchell — an ex-All Blacks coach — and typified by flanker Sam Underhill’s robust hits on Read and Jordie Barrett. New Zealand conceded more penalties (11-6) and turnovers.
The first of the disallowed tries was in the 25th, when the TMO ruled against Underhill’s try because Tom Curry blocked two defenders when he crossed in front of a ball-playing Kyle Sinckler.
But Underhill earned a penalty that allowed Ford to make it 10-0 at halftime. It was only the second time New Zealand had been held scoreless in the first half of a World Cup game — the first was in a semifinal loss to Australia in 1991.
Scrumhalf Ben Youngs scurried over six minutes after the break, but again the TMO overruled, deciding that an England forward lost control of the ball in a maul before it was regathered by his teammate in front.
Another Ford penalty made it 13-0 before New Zealand finally scored, and suddenly there was six points in it.
An ominous end of that comeback came on the hour, though, when Underhill caught and tackled Jordie Barrett as New Zealand was launching a counterattack.
Two further penalties made the margin too big to overcome.
It’s been a tough year for New Zealand teams against England, after the Cricket World Cup went to England on an unusual tiebreaker countback.
New Zealand will have to play off for bronze in what will be Hansen’s last match in charge. And this loss to England will be tough to come back from.
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