Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: TMOs, closing out games, James Ryan and respect for Japan
Last Updated: 12/11/18 6:13pm
Stuart Barnes reflects on England's loss to New Zealand, the upcoming Japan Test and James Ryan's influence for Ireland...
1 If you believe the scoreboards there's not a lot between the top teams in the world.
New Zealand and England were embroiled in the tightest game of the weekend. For a few years - bar the Lions series - the All Blacks seemed to be getting everything pretty much their own way. But Saturday's win was their third nail-biter in their last five games.
Throw in the home loss in Wellington and the exceptional fightback in Pretoria, against the Springboks on both occasions, and the rest of the world can perhaps take some heart.
South Africa themselves were the losers in yet another one-point game at Twickenham only a week ago, but they turned the tables on France with a dramatic late winner on Saturday night. The way the weekend went, the three-point win for Wales against Australia had the look of a comfortable win.
2 On a similar theme, it seems that, one year out from the World Cup, the biggest problem is the inability to close out the game in the final few minutes.
That's how you win World Cups; it is what New Zealand did in 2011 and England in 2003. The All Blacks may have learned a lesson from their fumbling failure to manufacture a drop-goal attempt to beat the Springboks on home soil.
Beauden Barrett's second-half drop was a nod to pragmatism and nothing wrong with that. This time Twickenham witnessed the northern hemisphere making a bit of a botch.
Owen Farrell DID put himself in the pocket for a late match-winning drop but as captain he has to take some share of responsibility for the forwards' mismanagement, as they drifted towards touch rather than pop pass inside and outside, one off the scrum-half, until Farrell was properly placed. Lessons for England to learn in defeat.
3 Wales were the exception to the rule. In a game that wasn't the prettiest of affairs, Wales ended a decade-long and 13-match losing run against the Wallabies. You needed to be Welsh to relish this one.
Dan Biggar kicked the 77th-minute winner for the record, Leigh Halfpenny missed two - yes, two - sitters by his standards - while the Wallabies must wonder about their tactic of going for the corner in a tight game when points were at a premium.
The victory does lift a great big psychological monkey (whatever that is) off the Welsh backs ahead of these two sides' pool game in Japan but, as Michael Cheika pointed out, it does not guarantee anything either.
4 In Dublin, James Ryan caught my eye. In one sixty-odd-seconds spell the young lock made an astonishing four different carries.
The acid test comes next week when he most probably faces the outstanding All Black combination of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, arguably the world's best second-row combination and the planet's best player. The latter did an incredible job against the England set-piece in Saturday's epic.
5 The way in which they destroyed the England lineout sums up the New Zealand ability to find a way to win. There was much confusion re the substitution of Dylan Hartley at half-time. The initial word on the bench was 'tactical', but by full-time Eddie Jones was saying it was an injury.
Maybe he wanted to give Jamie George, the Lions Test hooker, a full 40 minutes. By full-time, George must have wished he'd stayed on the bench. The whole lineout was taken to pieces and Jones had second thoughts.
6 I love the way New Zealand ignore the professional adages about a good big 'un always beating a good little 'un.
Damian McKenzie is as small as they come these days. Doubtless a few Premiership clubs wouldn't have offered him a contract, based on size alone.
He was brilliant on Saturday. Not just scoring the try but scything through England, working his way out of tricky corners. With him and Beauden Barrett on the field at the same time, New Zealand thrive and threaten with their dual play-making capacity.
7 To England. They lost the match but found their way back into contention as a big-time team. The win against South Africa was infinitely less impressive than the loss to New Zealand.
The first 10 minutes, with England punching off the side and suckering the opposition infield before Ben Youngs produced a try-scoring pass for Chris Ashton, was as good a 10 minutes as I have seen from any Eddie Jones England team.
8 On an individual level, the performance of Sam Underhill might be one of the most significant 80 minutes we have seen.
The days of papering over the back row with sixes playing seven could be over. Tom Curry's injury gave the Bath flanker a chance and how well he took it.
The quantity and quality of the tackles was exceptional while the way he turned Barrett inside out showed an instinctive side to his running game few of us knew existed. A back row of Big Billy with Mark Wilson - industrious and effective - shifting to six alongside Underhill looks to be beautifully balanced.
9 What goes around comes around. In the eyes of many England were desperately lucky not to be penalised in the last play of the game against South Africa, leaving Handre Pollard a chance to win the game.
This time it was hard to see Courtney Lawes in a clear and obvious offside position in the lead-up to the non-Underhill try. And TMO Marius Jonker, along with all other TMOs, was instructed to report the clear and obvious.
Eddie Jones was pretty quiet when the decision went his way last week. He was equally reticent when it went against him this one. He comes out of the fortnight of internationals well.
10 Finally, Japan next week. It is so long since Japan have played England at Twickenham that I was then the England fly-half. Caps were not awarded as Japan were not regarded as a tier-one nation.
Since their great win against the Springboks under Jones in Brighton, they have been treated with more respect. The All Blacks, fielding a weakened team, beat them 69-31 - although New Zealand find flaws in opposing teams better than any team.
It suggests an England win but Japan will put up resistance and make whatever side Jones fields, fight for the win. Nothing is a given any more. If you are not at Twickenham, do join us on Sky.