63 minutes and 47 seconds on the clock; Marcus Smith beats the floor with his fist. He has knocked the ball on attempting to keep a move alive. A move that had swept towards the All Blacks’ try line like the evening tide. The white, frothy, aggressively lapping waves repeating and creeping, in contrast to anything that had come before. We are into the final quarter at Twickenham and England have most definitely woken up. Quite why they were asleep is a different matter but we will attempt to document a final breath that has given life to Jones’ tenure and England’s Autumn International (and possibly World Cup) campaign.
But back to Smith. England’s replacements had added zest to a flagging performance and a tip-on from Will Stuart had landed in young Marcus’ grasp. He was facing in completely the wrong direction but flung a dummy, pirouetted on his heel and fell into the oncoming clutches of Mark Telea and Richie Mo’unga. In the ensuing tussle, the Harlequin spilt the ball and showed his displeasure by landing a clenched fist against the turf of England’s home ground. He pleads with referee Raynal and Andrew Cotter in commentary compares England’s attack to that of the sea hitting rocks; seemingly powerful but apparently fruitless in their approach.
Dave Ribbans appears from out of shot, he taps those around him to herald his arrival and touches palms with Jonny Hill, with whom he is exchanging positions. Cotter claims that England are running out of ideas. Ribbans runs a hand through his hair and shoots a look at the big screen. Ideas can come in many shapes and sizes.
An excellent exit from the visitors follows a couple of reset scrums; New Zealand are back up to halfway. An England lineout: Jamie George finds Maro Itoje like a long-lost friend and Ben Youngs finds Owen Farrell like it’s 2019. Farrell endures a very large shoulder from the onrushing defender and Jonny May accelerates onto an exquisite inside ball from the inside centre; England are suddenly playing the right notes in what sounds like the right order.
But crucially, as the run faulters short of the line, look at Smith: he has his hands up; he’s rushed right and Youngs has looked left. Both of Smith’s arms are up, outstretched; he is shouting. Youngs can neither hear him nor see him and goes to the other way, to Itoje and Billy Vunipola, ‘If not now, when?’ is the exquisite line from the commentary box, summing up the moment and a great deal of Eddie Jones’ England.
A penalty is coming and a speculative kick from Smith, knowledgable of the advantage, is juggled first by Freddie Steward and then Henry Slade: the former howls into the night as another moment goes a-begging. The referee returns for the penalty and the kick to the corner comes from Smith, who struts towards his backline with the look of a man who is about to take matters into his own hands. He is shouting instructions, either to those around him, or himself. But then, egregiously, Itoje is lifted across the lineout and the All Blacks will have a penalty of their own to clear their lines. The camera focuses on Smith, who appears, in the moment, unable to express himself. His face falls and his eyes shut.
One more silly penalty is given away by England and, after half a dozen New Zealand phases, Billy Vunipola finds himself on the wrong side of the ruck and the referee’s arm is out. No need; Beauden Barrett is back in the pocket and a drop-goal sails through the posts and towards the once again quieted Twickenham crowd. 70 minutes and 1 second on the clock: the lead is extended to 19 points and epitaphs are being written. But for whom?
From the restart, Mako Vunipola, another of England’s bench, finds a little extra gear and the men in white are on the front foot once more. The ball is quickly recycled and our man Smith, as incensed as any by England’s spurnful and aimless performance, ignores the runners he had doubtless been told to find and exerts himself between two defenders. There is something about the way he does it that excites the soul. The ball tucked in the crook of his hand and arm; the bounce of his near iconic hair; the hitch-kick you know that is coming, and even though it doesn’t work, it seems to carom a belief through England’s core. 70 minutes and 45 seconds of the game and England haven’t hitch-kicked once. Why not? Hitch-kicking is great.
From the resulting try and regather, England are at it again. Smith finds Guy Porter and May on one flank, only for the latter to reverse infield. Quick ball allows substitute Slade to receive from Itoje and Ribbans is suddenly through a hole in the fence; an audacious and ideal offload in midfield sets Farrell free and his left-hand spins a pass out wide to Steward. More inside ball between Tom Curry and Mako Vunipola a breakdown later and Youngs, this time, has chosen the right path. A mismatch has appeared on the narrow side and Steward is cantering in, in front of a jubilant set of fans. It is most definitely on; I’ve seen this sort of comeback somewhere before. The same place the hitch-kick lives. Oh, I’d follow England to hell and back if they gave us games like Quins do.
Fast forward: England are motoring and have just scored again through Will Stuart; New Zealand will restart with the clock in the red. 25-all and England will catch the restart. But, disappointingly, they refuse to play ball and, ironically, it is young Marcus who has the dubious honour of kicking the ball to touch. Smith shrugs as if he’s ok with it. They will take the draw despite the boos that ring around the stadium. Having waited so long to sing their song, the fans want an encore. It isn’t to be. Other teams may have gone for it, but not this England, not right now. And you are left with the same question I asked before: why not?
The answer, I fear, lies in a simple but difficult truth: England have a personality disorder. Deep down, once they throw caution to the wind and fire up their imaginations, they can play bewitching and appealing rugby. But sat on top is a character that lacks the propensity to attract, so caught up is it in the idea of losing.
I have no idea why, in an Autumn International, with so much fuel in your tank, against a side like New Zealand, in front of baying home fans who are zealous in their affection for you, you just don’t go for it. Other than you don’t want to lose.
It must have irritated Smith to the core to kick that ball out, for, elsewhere, he doesn’t seem to care about losing. Because, if truth be told, that’s not the real him. That’s not what got him here, that’s not why he plays and it’s not really what he wants to do. And that’s basically the crux of my story. There are lots of very good players not being themselves on the international stage and it is insufferable to watch. And if England are to engage in any sort of journey towards the World Cup trophy next year, the real Smith, and indeed the real England, need to please stand up.