The Aotearoa Kiwis tour of England got underway with a first up loss, in which the Kiwis dipped below the standards the laid down against Australia and England did what they do best. On the back of that win over Australia, this loss could be viewed in a step backwards and there reality check vibes here are real, however on the journey of Michael Maguire's coaching tenure, this is merely another step forward.
Expecting the Kiwis to flow gloriously from Mt Smart to Hull and roll out another slick performance is foolish, which is where the beauty sits in the first Test and perhaps the remainder of this series. For those who ain't in the know, this was the definition of Test footy and the rugged style of game was far different to the free-flowing funk we saw at Mt Smart a few weeks ago. A lot went the way of the Kiwis in that game, in England though against a street-smart group - especially through the middle - the Kiwis couldn't quite get the job done.
Things are a bit weird because no kiwi was poor, or overly good and as the referee kept blowing his whistle, the game fell more and more in favour of England. The stop-start nature of this game was better suited to England, who were more than happy to go set for set and while many of Sam Tomkins' 12 kicks didn't appear to be overly threatening, they are the perfect example of England executing a simple game plan that complimented their players.
With plenty of whistle and an England team that worked their way through the middle of the park nicely, as well as stifling the Kiwis attack with a swift defensive line, the Kiwis couldn't handle the different style of game. Need we be reminded that Aotearoa only lost by a couple points and with a greater familiarity with England's style, there should be some growth between the first and second Test.
Funnily enough, the Kiwis looked their best when they went down the route of completing their sets, getting to the kick and pegging England on their own 10m line. That's how Aotearoa beat Australia and those foundations then allow the Kiwis to settle into their attacking structures, which produced two beautiful tries in the first half.
What hindered Aotearoa, was that when they went away from their foundations, things get a bit hectic and the clinical execution vanishes. Sure, offloads and moving the ball is clearly part of this Kiwis team's style, but against England, in England, a splash of patience was required. To break down England's defence, which is built around effort and attitude, Aotearoa had use their attacking schemes to manipulate the defence. Instead, they played too much off the cuff footy and England just had to keeping showing up and making tackles.
Sometimes this was a product of England's defence influencing the Kiwis attack. In the second half they rushed up off their try line to get in the face of Kodi Nikorima, who then scooted back ino a cul de sac and turned the footy over. This isn't a poor reflection on Nikorima, this is merely an example of England altering the Kiwis system and forcing them into that hectic attack.
With that in mind, this felt like an Adam Blair type of game. The experience and niggle that Blair offers would have been useful in a game that epitomised the grind, however coach Maguire instead opted for 7mins of Joseph Tapine off the bench. Jesse Bromwich was immense, with 17runs/191m and 74 post contact metres, while the impact of Leeson Ah Mau (11runs/124m) and Martin Taupau (13runs/135m) who both averaged over 10m/run was also impressive. Maguire also gave Kenny Bromwich a few minutes as a middle forward as he initially replaced Brandon Smith, who then came on later for Ah Mau.
There will be a lot of focus on Shaun Johnson given the news regarding his future back in Aotearoa and Johnson rolled out another solid performance. There could have been better balance in the kicking duties as Johnson had 16 kicks to Nikorima's 2 kicks, but the control offered by Johnson was again impressive and on top of that he can add his running magic.
The difference between the Australia and England Tests though, was the confidence and trust in their attacking structures. In England, Johnson and Nikorima went into 'razzle dazzle' mode a bit too early and how they build up pressure on England's defence will be crucial in the coming games. This isn't just about getting repeat sets, it's about going set for set with England and being able to set up plays, by doing the opposite in sets leading up to that play.
Wayne Bennett knows how to coach this type of team and he's got an abundance of players who are playing international footy exactly how England play their best footy. That's very different to how a young Australian team operate and in a tight contest with all sorts of pauses, the Kiwis were slightly off in a few details. On to the nek.
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Peace and love 27.