England will be New Zealand's biggest test in the tournament

England will be New Zealand's biggest test in the tournament
Manu Tuilagi and Owen Farrell training. Picture: PA

This is a contest fit for the final itself with the winner fancied to go all the way.

It’s a measure of how far England have come in the last six months that, despite New Zealand’s brilliance against Ireland last weekend, Eddie Jones’s men are very much in contention to win this one.

England’s form has oscillated between brilliance and mediocrity since Jones took over, starting out with an 18- match winning streak which Ireland ended in spectacular fashion in Dublin in 2017.

Several questions were asked during this year’s Six Nations after a 21-13 defeat to Wales in Cardiff before surrendering a 30 point lead to trail Scotland by seven heading into the final stretch at Twickenham.

Admittedly England found the composure to rescue a draw with the last play of the game but that said more about Scotland’s inability to close out the tie in the last two minutes of action.

What that game highlighted was England’s lack of leadership under pressure.

Owen Farrell, who took over the captaincy from Dylan Hartley after the Northampton hooker found himself surplus to requirements, came under enormous pressure after that but has grown in the role since.

England’s increased maturity was very much in evidence in their quarter-final win over Australia last weekend when Wallabies’ winger Marika Koroibete scored a wonder try to reduce England’s lead to a single point minutes into the second half.

No panic. England kept their heads, stuck to what they do best and responded with a super try from Kyle Sinckler. When he manages to control his temperament, he makes a huge contribution to his side.

He appears a much calmer figure to the one that Alun Wyn Jones managed to wind up in that victory in Cardiff back in February, when Sinckler pressed the self-destruct button which contributed massively to England losing.

That said, you can be certain New Zealand will single him out and seek to push his buttons.

Unlike Ireland, England have timed their run perfectly for this World Cup. They were also fortunate that a potentially explosive final pool game against France fell by the wayside due to Typhoon Hagibis.

Any suggestion that the cancellation of that game might affect their sharpness for the Australian contest was dismissed by the quality of their performance.

The big difference in this England side to the one that struggled for long periods in 2018 is that Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola are both ever- present, fitter than at any point in their careers and delivering consistently high-quality performances.

That serves as an inspiration for all around them. In addition, they are backboned by a hardcore group of mentally strong and seriously good Saracens players who have made an art form out of delivering on the big stage domestically and in Europe under the guidance of Mark McCall.

Farrell and Vunipola are supported in the England set-up by other key Saracens’ players in Billy’s brother Mako along with British and Irish Lions colleagues Jamie George, George Kruis, and Maro Itoje.

 Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola tackle Izack Rodda of Australia. Picture: Inpho
Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola tackle Izack Rodda of Australia. Picture: Inpho

Adding further intrigue to this semi-final is the fact that the two sides have only met once since 2014 — a controversial 16-15 win for New Zealand in 2018, with England denied a late try on a very marginal offside call by the TMO.

So unlike Ireland, it means there is little recent history between them. More relevant perhaps is that 13 of the England World Cup squad toured with the Lions in that drawn series against New Zealand in 2017.

On their return, Jones made every England player present a dossier on their experience and what they learned, specifically geared to the position they played in.

The Irish Lions on that tour used their experience positively when winning in Dublin in 2018 but yielded nothing in the more competitive environment of a World Cup when it mattered most. It will be interesting to see if their Engish colleagues have more to show for that experience.

The fact that New Zealand have delivered two outstanding performances in the two most high-pressure games they have played in the tournament so far, the opening match against South Africa and against Ireland last weekend, makes them marginal favorites in my mind.

Ireland were unable to exert any sustained pressure on New Zealand, especially at the breakdown, and that enabled their razor-sharp scrum-half Aaron Smith to run the show. With two groundhogs in the England back row, the battle on the deck will go a long way towards deciding this contest.

England will be New Zealand's biggest test in the tournament

My suspicions that New Zealand were already switching their attention to the semi-final by half-time against Ireland were confirmed with the inclusion of Scott Barrett in place of Sam Cane for tomorrow’s game. Hansen made that call at half-time last weekend with England in mind.

Barrett is an outstanding forward and while it leaves Ardie Savea as the sole groundhog to compete with England’s twin poachers in Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, Barrett’s presence along with Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick will certainly aid their cause at the lineout without sacrificing too much in broken play.

Barrett has enjoyed an outstanding World Cup to date but Cane is decidedly unlucky to be demoted to the bench.

Ireland were comprehensively beaten in the battle for the gainline last Saturday but England have some serious ball carriers in the Vunipola brothers, Sinckler, Itoje, and Tuilagi to make that a far more even contest.

On current form, England are good enough to win this but New Zealand have a habit of stepping up even further when the need is greatest. Jones must devise a strategy that limits the opportunities presented to the lethal All Blacks trio of Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, and George Bridge and that includes not giving them the opportunity to counterattack off uncontested kicks, as Ireland did to their cost. England have a chance, especially if they can create opportunities for their own back three.

England need to score tries when the contest is still alive. In Tuilagi, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, and Jonny May, they have plenty of firepower to do just that.

This is set to be the biggest test of New Zealand in the tournament. It will be tight but Hansen’s men should have enough to get the job done.

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