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Can we call it a dethronement? A changing of the guard, even? While it feels a stretch to suggest that the All Blacks’ stranglehold on the sport has finally been broken, there was no doubting the significance of Saturday’s semi-final. For England, it felt like confirmation of a bright new dawn, another upward step on the ladder. For those who left the pitch with their heads hanging low, bodies battered and bruised, it felt like the end of an era.
New Zealand have been the gold standard for the past 10 years. In the pantheon of greats, the All Blacks have stood proud and tall, the purest distillation of sporting supremacy. Under Steve Hansen, who took charge in 2012, the side has won 92 out of 105 Test matches – including Saturday’s 19-7 humbling. At the World Cup, there seemed to be no end to their dominance, having won a record 18 consecutive games following that quarter-final defeat way back in 2007.
In beating New Zealand then, England brought to a halt the flow of history. They turned off the taps, smiling as they did so. By the end of a dry and still evening in Yokohama, the sense of inevitability that surrounds the All Blacks – “Just give us the World Cup now,” the New Zealand Herald chirped before the tournament – had dissipated, replaced by the bewilderment and agony of those struggling to process what had happened.
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But there was no denying the outcome. That was clear to both sets of players, fans and coaches. “I think they [England] were deserved winners tonight,” said Hansen afterwards. “You had two very good sides going at each other and the team that took the game won the game.” It was the same admission among his men. “They came out with a hiss and a roar, gave us a punch to the nose from the get-go,” said George Bridge.
Indeed, it was the nature of the defeat which said so much more than the actual result. Because New Zealand weren’t just beaten. They were outplayed, outsmarted, outmuscled. In every department of the game, the English, who could have put at least 15 more points past their opponents, were the superior side.
At the line-out, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock were bullied into submission by the brilliance of Maro Itoje, a tour de force who can be rightly considered as one of the game’s very best. In the breakdown, Sam Underhill and
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