It was a dream return to England's starting XV for Chris Ashton yesterday as he claimed a third try against the All Blacks in just the second minute of his 41st Test. A score that would see him become the only man to have scored three tries against the world champions whilst donning the rose.
Ashton resisted the likely temptation to grace the early score with his trademark 'Ash Splash', sliding to the floor well before the line to ensure the score could not be spoiled. A pleasantly surprising pulse raiser for England fans following nine months of pessimism.
But how did England do it? And why did they wait until this game to perform so impressively when the 2018 Six Nations and summer tour of South Africa harvested such disappointment? We take a look at exactly how Eddie Jones's charges stunned the All Blacks so early at Twickenham yesterday, why we are only just seeing it and the steps they must take to continue this trend in the build-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan less than a year away.
Scrambling All Blacks
International teams being marched back ten metres for dissent, tries awarded without the use of the TMO and a fit Billy Vunipola; none of the aforementioned rarities can boast to be as endangered a sight as a New Zealand side reeling off the back of an error in the first action of the day. What makes yesterday's start even more unique was that the slip in standards came via the hands of the best lock in World Rugby, Brodie Rettalick.
The 2014 World Rugby Player of the Year was guilty of knocking on Owen Farrell's kick-off in the rain-sodden Twickenham Stadium yesterday, handing England prime attacking position with a scrum on the visitors' 22.
The next 107 seconds would see England present a display more akin to their 2016 selves than the side we have observed over the last 24 months. Primarily, the presences of Sam Underhill and Mark Wilson in the backrow, Kyle Sinckler at tighthead and Ben Te'o at inside centre would make the most notable differences. The mobility and pace the quartet possess over the likes of Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Dan Cole coming to fruition.
Wilson and co keep england moving
The first action to set England's try-scoring attack into motion is that of Te'o. The former rugby league man takes the direct route between opposition fly-half Beauden Barrett and right wing Ben Smith, making a healthy one metre carry after contact considering Ardie Savea comes in to assist Smith with the tackle.
Newly appointed starting backrowers, Underhill and Wilson, are quick to the ruck that ensues, eager to clear any hint of a New Zealand hand slowing English possession. Although, their overeagerness produces the singular error in the lead up to Ashton sliding into the right-hand corner, with scrum-half Ben Youngs scragged by Rettalick, who is out to make amends for his early error.
Youngs is able to safely get the ball away to co-captain Dylan Hartley, who duly burrows back into the traffic, making half a metre or so over Te'o's original carry.
Wilson and Underhill are quick to secure the ruck once more, joined by first-time starter Ben Moon and Maro Itoje, ensuring their halfback receives ample protection second time around.
This is quickly followed with fast-paced carries from Sinckler, Itoje and Underhill. All of whom are quick to switch from ruck obligations to carrying duty. See the three back-to-back carries below, and keep a keen eye on England's efficiency at securing fast-ball. Brad Shields, Wilson, George Kruis, Hartley and Sinckler are all on point here.
This pace from ruck-to-ruck and carry-to-carry is essential in setting Ashton up for the score, with the All Blacks scrambling to organise their defence, where so often they are proven efficacious at slowing down opposition ball, even marginally.
This eventually opens up space down the right side of the pitch for Ashton's run-in, once Youngs identifies the opportunity and executes the 20-metre pass with aplomb.
While the work done by proactive carriers and razor-sharp ruck attendees set the initial platform, it is the backline that opens up space.
Prior to Underhill's final carry that precedes Youngs' pass, New Zealand are well prepared for an assault down the right flank. England have four men on hand for any wide assaults, see Farrell (10) and Jonny May (11) numbered below, along with Ashton (14) and Elliot Daly (15) hovering out of frame. New Zealand possess equal numbers ready to defend, with Codie Taylor (2), Jack Goodhue (13), Reiko Ioane (11) and Damien McKenzie (15) all in position.
Note the 13 above outside centre Henry Slade in the ruck, he plays his role in manipulating New Zealand's defence.
One phase later, after Underhill has made a healthy metre and a half past the combined tackle of Kieran Read and Savea, all of England's backs, bar Ashton, shift to the right side of the pitch, whilst Slade rejoins his backline after ejecting himself from the ruck that followed Itoje's carry.
Aaron Smith spots this change, calling his defenders across the pitch. Most importantly, McKenzie tracks left to cover the likely threat of Daly in behind the initial surge of Farrell, May, Slade and Te'o. Keep an eye on the defenders swapping sides on the top left side of the below image.
This opens up the chasm of space out wide and in behind for Ashton to receive Youngs' well-executed pass.
The rest as they say, is history.
Retaining early form ahead of Japan 2019
While many will attribute the final call of TMO Marius Jonker to England's loss, a sharp drop in accuracy was far more influential in denying England a second historic victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in just a six-year period.
Between Slade's decision to shoot out on Ryan Crotty to open space for McKenzie's 38th-minute score, Farrell's kick out on the full and the torrid English lineout in the second 40, Jones's charges simply could not retain their razor- sharp mental edge in the second-half.
When you compare the early success yesterday with England's failures last season, there is one particular area that stands out, in my eyes to say the least. In a word, it is athleticism. Last year, England's backrow and inside centre berth were significantly less efficient when it comes to securing their own ball and slowing down their opponents'. This is not simply down to balance and ability to poach once at the breakdown, but the agility and athleticism to step, jink and sprint to and from breakdowns.
Chris Robshaw, Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes all filled in at six, seven and eight at a time last year. While Robshaw is still one of the highest quality flankers in the England squad, he can't compete with the mobility of the current unit, while Lawes - an out of position lock - and a barely fit Hughes struggled to get themselves to the same positions in a timely fashion. This proved to be notably influential on the way Scotland and France schooled England at the breakdown, with the return to three authentic backrowers against Ireland going some way to fixing the issue.
England reaped the benefits of possessing an entire backrow unit able to play or cover the role of an openside yesterday, while the added pace and power of Sinckler at tighthead and Te'o at inside centre made significant headway across the board where the contact area and breakdown were concerned.
While Lawes provided impressive and influential physicality when he was on the pitch this weekend, replacing Shields temporarily for a HIA in the 26th minute and again permanently in the 64th, England make a deal with the devil when trading much-needed mobility and nous for an extra (high quality) physical second row. There is no doubting Lawes' Test pedigree and the fact that he should remain in England's 23, but to lack the option of a specialist backrow on the bench against the All Blacks or even in the starting XV last season works against the pillars of England's success yesterday.