It’s hard to know where to begin when summing up that historic England performance on Saturday night in Yokohama, writes Charlie Talbot-Smith.
It almost defies comparison. Never before have England beaten the All Blacks at a World Cup and not since 2007 have New Zealand lost on this, the biggest stage of all.
But the All Blacks did not just lose on Saturday night, they were bullied and beaten, bowing out with barely a whimper.
That almost never happens, so how did England produce probably their greatest ever performance?
“New Zealand is a god of rugby - so we wanted to take it to them, show we could take the game to them. So we wanted to put them on the back foot as much as we could.” – England head coach Eddie Jones
The planning of this victory, according to Jones anyway, was two and a half years in the making.
Ever since the draw, England knew they were likely to face the All Blacks in this semi-final.
As a result, Jones has spent that time preparing his side. The tactics of the win we will get to, but this was a win that owed just as much to mindset.
To beat the All Blacks, you have to go in with stacks of self-belief.
All week long, Jones made continual reference to the British & Irish Lions Tour two years ago.
The relevance of that result was not in the tactics, considering how quickly the game moves on and how much the All Blacks have changed since then.
It was all about reminding his players that victory is not only possible, but probable with the right belief.
“We wanted to also make sure that they understood that we would be ready for the fight. We knew it would rile them up, it probably felt like we disrespected them.” – Mako Vunipola
That defiant approach was apparent right from the get go.
For the All Black’s traditional haka, England faced it down in feisty fashion – a plan instigated by Jones it turned out.
With skipper Owen Farrell at the centre, England formed an inverted V to encircle the traditional Maori war dance.
The symbolism was clear to see for, and the All Black rendition of Kapa o Pango was not up to its usual slick standards.
England looked like they didn’t have a care in the world, Farrell was grinning wryly, Joe Marler was acting the fool in the All Black half and Farrell – according to Aaron Smith even tossed in a couple of winks.
England meant business and while Kiwi captain Kieran Read was quick to say afterwards that England’s response to the haka “had no impact on the game”, the proof was in the pudding.
“The challenge was either you try to do it to them or they will do it to you. We tried to do that from the get-go and we did that.” – Billy Vunipola
Straight after the haka, England produced an opening salvo that will live long in the memories off all who witnessed it.
From the kick-off, George Ford handed the ball off to Owen Farrell for a late switch of attack and England put their marker down early.
All week Jones had made it clear that he had picked his finishers first, to make a statement of intent.
And inside 100 seconds they had their try.
The All Blacks tried to hide Richie Mo’unga at outside centre in defence, England expected this and still managed to get to him with their mutli-phase approach.
Elliot Daly burned him on the outside, Anthony Watson carried the fight on before the forwards got involved. Kyle Sinckler’s basketball offload was All Black-esque, Courtney Lawes barrelled his way close to the line and Manu Tuilagi played scrum-half to burrow over.
The All Blacks looked shell-shocked, and barely got off the canvas thereafter.
"Steve Borthwick has made a career out of lineouts: he’s the professor. If there was a PhD in lineouts, he would be a double PhD." – Maro Itoje
“I just jump.” – Courtney Lawes
The lineout was always going to be a key battleground.
12 months ago in the rain at Twickenham, Hansen played a trump card by bringing Scott Barrett off the bench and England’s lineout imploded.
Replacement Jamie George lost five in the second half alone, a record in the Jones era.
But international rugby moves on so quickly, you cannot expect a trick that worked a year ago to have the same devastating effect a year on.
Hansen thought he was pulling a fast one, starting Barrett in the back row for the first time ever, but Jones was not worried.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) October 26, 2019
He resisted the temptation to slide Courtney Lawes to the back row or even bring George Kruis into the starting second row.
He backed his boys, with Maro Itoje calling the shots, Lawes rising high and Tom Curry improving all the time as England’s third jumper.
Every forward went out of their way to praise Steve Borthwick for his work in this area after the game.
Rather than being overmatched, England were near perfect on their own ball, Lawes and Itoje both managed steals in the sky on All Blacks throws while Itoje sacked mauls for fun.
England’s weakness has become a strength. And it has been a squad effort. Lawes modestly gave nearly all the praise for his own performance in that area to Kruis, the man whose starting spot he had taken.
"When you pick tall lads like that (Scott Barrett), there is an opportunity to work a bit lower. It came to fruition today.” – Tom Curry
Hansen was big enough to admit that he had got his selection wrong with the inclusion of Barrett over Sam Cane.
While England still ruled the skies, the All Blacks were now underpowered at the breakdown where Cane can most often make his impact felt.
Of course it helps to have a turnover machine like Itoje in your ranks, but Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were both at their menacing best as well.
Time and again, England slowed All Black ball, won outright turnovers and killed all the momentum of a side that thrive on it.
Hansen realised too late and brought Cane on at the break, but the damage was done.
Once you have unleashed a monstrous duo like the Kamikaze Kids, it is very hard to put them back in their box.
“You have got to be good at something and I can’t kick.”- Sam Underhill
“I need to up my hit game with this guy around.” – Courtney Lawes
Sam Underhill’s tackling is unlike almost anything we have seen in this World Cup.
In a competition for tackle of the tournament, Underhill probably has most of the entries in the top ten.
Here on Saturday, he ticked off Kieran Read and Jordie Barrett on his hit-list.
Reputation means nothing when you get cut in half. A week on from destroying the Wallabies, this was another level up again.
And his dry wit in front of a microphone has probably been his second-best characteristic out here in Japan.
His teammates might not want to have lunch with him, but they know a star when they see one.
Even Lawes, for so long England’s greatest hits band leader, has never seen anything like Underhill.
“We train that way, so it comes quite easily and quite naturally, which is great. We train under a load of pressure, a lot of pressure.” – Courtney Lawes
12 months ago, England put together a sublime first quarter against the All Blacks at Twickenham.
They opened up a 15-0 lead and had the world’s best team on the rack.
But they could not maintain that intensity, and when they dipped, the All Blacks ripped them apart.
This time around, Jones and his coaching staff had England humming for the full 80.
Their fitness has gone to a new level, warm weather training camps in Treviso have clearly yielded results.
But putting together an 80-minute showing like that is about your powers of concentration as much as your ability to break new ground in a bleep test.
England have made a habit of wobbling when the pressure comes on, they did in Cardiff earlier this year and again in the Calcutta Cup.
But last weekend in the quarter-finals, when Marika Korobeite’s try brought the Wallabies back to with a point, England rolled up their sleeves and got back to work.
And again a week later, with the pressure even greater, Ardie Savea was gifted a try by England’s sole lineout misfire of the night and suddenly the All Blacks were back within a score.
But the hard work with team psychologist Corinne Reid has clearly paid off. The scars of 2015 have healed over and they finished the game once again on the front foot as the All Blacks failed to muster another proper chance.
“Maro’s a great team-mate, he’s one of those that can give you confidence when you’re running out because you know what he can do. He’s not a great singer, he’s not a great dancer but you can’t have everything.” - Mako Vunipola
“Sometimes sport is not fair but tonight it is, and we wish them all the best.” – All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen
There was a reason why Steve Hansen sought out a handshake with Maro Itoje after the final whistle.
Game recognises game. And Itoje had just produced the sort of performance that goes down in folklore.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) October 26, 2019
If you were trying, you would say it was the sort of game Brodie Retallick has made his calling card in recent years.
But this time around, the great All Black was powerless in the face of Itoje’s relentlessness.
The Saracens lock can do it all, and in a team performance where nearly every England player was perfect, Itoje was first amongst equals.
Martin Johnson didn’t have the all-round skillset that Itoje has, nor did John Eales. Itoje is setting a new standard for second rows, like Retallick did before him.
It is now up to the rest of the world to catch up.
“It’s beyond my dreams this. It’s an unbelievable feeling. it was amazing to get through to the semis. Standing here now and we’re in the final. I thank god. Thank god.” – Manu Tuilagi
If Itoje was the star man on Saturday, then Tuilagi was their talisman.
What Stuart Lancaster, and Jones for much of his tenure, would have given for this fully fit and firing version.
On this sort of form, England go from a good to a great team.
Time and again he launches a new England possession onto the front foot, and with George Ford and Farrell inside him, more often than not they find him in the right space to bring out his best.
Injury-hit doesn’t come close to describing Tuilagi’s torrid time of it in the last five years.
But he is back to his best when England needed him most.
“Just another week, mate. We’re here for another week. We’re not historians, we don’t know - but we know we can play better next week. We’re going to have to, whoever we play.” – Eddie Jones
Of course, this will all count for nothing if England cannot finish the job next weekend.
Downing the All Blacks in such emphatic style is one thing, but Jones wants to finish the job.
In 2003, his Wallabies did a similar job on the All Blacks in the semi-finals but then came unstuck against England a week later.
Whether they face South Africa or Wales, England will undoubtedly start as favourites in Yokohama next weekend.
The world rankings have put them to No.1 and they have knocked the best in the business of their perch when it really counts.
But all of that means nothing if Farrell is not hoisting the trophy high next weekend.
England will keep their feet firmly on the ground, and the muted celebrations at the final whistle told their own story last night.
Jones and his side are here for the real prize, and on this evidence it will take some seriously special to stop them.
"In 2003, I'd have been seven; 2007 was the first World Cup where it captured my imagination. I first started playing rugby in 2006, so the 2007 World Cup I remember watching in my room with my brother on a little TV, getting really excited,” – Maro Itoje
For all the talk of, one more week, one more game. It would take a heart of stone if these England players did not dare to dream.
They stand on the verge now of something truly historic.
Not since 2003 have England bossed the world. And in a year that has already seen the cricket team win it all, rugby wants its own moment in the spotlight.
Winning a World Cup is not just for the players themselves, but for their fans, for their country and for the next Maro Itojes watching in their bedrooms thousands of miles away.
Watch England home and away with England’s own travel company. www.englandrugbytravel.com