“A Test match against New Zealand is like the start of a Formula One race. If you’re not ready to go, you’ll get left behind. We had to come out of the blocks hard early and establish some physical and mental ascendancy. You don’t win the game there, but it puts you in a good position.”
So said Eddie Jones in the aftermath of England’s incredible victory over New Zealand on Saturday. Jones was referring specifically to Manu Tuilagi’s score after 98 seconds, and the move preceding the outside centre crashing over the line – a string of high intensity phases, physical and fast, in which England’s white shirted ball carriers ripped through (and over) the All Blacks, setting the tone for the following 80 minutes.
But what Jones said following the game could just as well be applied to England’s response to the haka. The V-shaped formation, with Owen Farrell, the beating heart of his side, at the centre, added drama and spectacle to the game’s build up, and while Kieran Read insisted it had no bearing on the final result, you cannot help but feel England were invigorated and emotionally charged as a result of their defiant response.
England are likely to be fined by World Rugby for their display, following the precedent set in the 2011 World Cup final, when Thierry Dusautoir’s French arrowhead formation was deemed to breach “cultural ritual protocol.”
If that moment felt distinctly French, in its emotion, its quiet, symbolic solidarity, then England’s response epitomised everything this team are about: confrontational, intimidating, unfazed, and deliberately provocative.
“We knew it would rile them up,” said captain Farrell, whose smirking face has since become the definitive image of the tournament so far. Aaron Smith said after the game that the England captain could be seen winking at New Zealand players.
England, however, insist they merely wanted to respond to the challenge set down by the haka, rather than in any way demean it, “we wanted to keep a respectful distance but we didn’t just want to stand in a flat line and let them come at us,” Farrell said.
Likewise, according to Mako Vunipola, whose brother Billy had talked earlier in the week about what an honour it was to face the Maori tradition,“we talked about it as a team, but everything has to get past the boss… he [Eddie Jones] gave us the idea.
“We meant no offence by it, we just wanted to let them know that we were ready for the challenge ahead. There have been a few times in the past when the All Blacks have done that and blown the opposition away. We put accountability on ourselves to back it up and I thought we did.”
Ultimately, that is the crux of the issue. In responding in kind, England placed pressure on themselves too, pressure to follow through and justify their defiant response. You do not challenge the haka only to be embarrassed in the game itself.
England set the tone early, but it was their performance, not the response to the haka, that beat the All Blacks. They will have to find the same intensity of mind and body to beat South Africa next week.
Written by Joe Ronan.