YOKOHAMA, Japan, Oct 26 – Recalled fly-half George Ford won the battle of the playmakers to help England to a sensational 19-7 victory over New Zealand in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday.
England coach Eddie Jones had benched Ford for the quarter-final victory over Australia for a more combative centre partnership.
But with the All Blacks basing their gameplan around double playmakers Richie Mo’unga and two-time World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett, Jones recalled Ford at fly-half with skipper Owen Farrell sliding out to inside centre to offer up the same option.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen had said he wanted “a game for the ages” and that wish was granted but not how he would have liked, as England’s forwards bullied their opposite numbers.
Childhood friends Ford and Farrell marshalled the midfield defence to great effect, all but curtailing Barrett’s contribution for most of the match to clearance kicks out of hand.
Ford proved all his worth in England’s opening try, holding the ball up perfectly for a pass to Kyle Sinckler, whose vital offload enabled Manu Tuilagi to crash over with barely a minute on the clock at Yokohama.
– ‘Helter-skelter’ –
Both Mo’unga and Barrett had ball in hand in a helter skelter opening 10 minutes, the former providing a lovely little grubber after the latter had overhit his first up-and-under.
Farrell, conspicuous on the cutback ball, had a couple of frustrating knock-ons in contact and a turnover as the English enthralled the 68,843 crowd by playing the All Blacks at their own off-loading best, mixed with some solid drives by the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, and the impressive lock pairing of Courtney Lawes and the totemic Maro Itoje.
Mo’unga and Barrett both enjoyed mazy runs as the All Blacks tried to hit back, the two interchanging on one occasion as Barrett thrusted and Mo’unga produced a cross-field kick for Anton Lienert-Brown on the recycle, well dealt with by Jonny May.
Barrett was forced into a couple of touch finders as the pace of the game eased, while Farrell, limping after a late knock into his back sent him sprawling, was on hand with a bone-crunching tackle to help bundle Jack Goodhue into touch after a Brodie Retallick break up field.
Ford missed a snatched deep drop-goal as England struggled to convert pressure into points, but hit a 45-metre penalty on the stroke of half-time.
The second period saw Barrett penalised under pressure from Farrell in the tackle and then turned over as the All Blacks tried desperately to transition from defence into attack.
With a second try disallowed for England, Ford booted a second 49th-minute penalty, Mo’unga producing his own conversion of Ardie Savea’s try to set up a nerve-racking final half-hour.
One crunching tackle by Underhill on Barrett drove the full-back into the ground and forced a knock-on, the flanker combining with fellow ‘kamikaze kid’ Tom Curry to great effect.
Ford settled the nerves with two further penalties and, tellingly, the son of former England and Britian rugby league player Mike was on hand to haul down fast-advancing All Black hooker Dane Coles with the line begging towards the end of the game.