England brave but bewildered

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The Independent Online
England 19 NZ Barbarians 34

Tries: Sleightholme 46, Tries: Brooke 7, Blowers 41

Stimpson 51 Spencer 75, Vidiri 79

Pens: Catt 2, 33, 40 Pens: Mehrtens 25, 54

Spencer 62, 74

Cons: Spencer 75

Half-time: 9-8 Attendance: 73,000

To have witnessed the birth on the international stage of a young rugby genius by the name of Carlos Spencer was ndeed a privilege. Coming on late in the game as a replacement for Andrew Mehrtens, he proved that matches at the highest level can be won by moments of unsurpassed beauty. It was enough to bring a tear to the eye of this romantic old fool. The sumptuous swing of the hips which took him between Chris Sheasby and the England captain, Phil de Glanville, coupled with the injection of blistering pace past the full-back Tim Stimpson, will remain long in the memory, as will the wizardry of Christian Cullen.

A celebration of 125 years of the Rugby Football Union this may have been, but the match was for real. It was a game which had everything. Exquisite individual touches, acrobatic agility, bewildering movements, shattering tackles and raw courage. One minute we saw the New Zealanders as never before, an all-singing, all-dancing troupe of entertainers. The next, when in four minutes in the second half they conceded tries to Jon Sleightholme and the outstanding Stimpson, they were the pragmatic battlers of old. It was then that they subjected England to such intolerable pressure that mistakes in defence were inevitable. Mehrtens punished them once in that spell with a penalty and Spencer followed up with the two blows which, even before his try, broke England.

Quite simply, it was a different class, a different game from that tame and lame encounter last week against the Italians. Even in carnival mood and in different clothing, the New Zealand Barbarians gave England a lesson in the finer points of the game. There were times, indeed, when they gave them the roasting of their lives, and the margin of victory could have been even greater. Both Sean Fitzpatrick and the incomparable Michael Jones, enjoying a new lease of life on the blind-side flank, crossed the England line in a torrid spell during the first half but neither try was allowed, Fitzpatrick because he had not made contact on the ball with his foot at a short penalty and Jones because he lost possession in the act of twisting over the line. It was only England's dogged defence, exemplified by Stimpson, which kept them in the game.

So it was something of a travesty when the half-time whistle blew and England were, somewhat to their own astonishment, a point ahead through three Mike Catt penalties.

The quality of the New Zealanders' passing, the lines of their running and the accuracy of their work with the ball, whether by foot or through the hand, was in stark contrast to England's sometimes woeful waywardness. Neither Catt nor Andy Gomarsall appeared to have much idea of where to place the ball with their defensive kicking and Gomarsall in particular, on cloud nine since the job he did on the Italians, came down to earth with a mighty bang.

As for Catt, his tactical kicking is simply not up to international standard and, in opposition to a master craftsman such as Mehrtens, he was reduced to the level of a journeyman. But that is exactly what he is anywhere on the field other than in the centre, and the sooner Jack Rowell and Catt himself for that matter come to terms with this, the better it will be for England. His undoubted talents are being wantonly misused.

It was from one of Catt's many mistimed and misplaced kicks that Mehrtens ran straight through the middle of England's bemused defence and fed Andrew Blowers to score the tourists' second try. Their first, scored by Robin Brooke, was of doubtful legitimacy. Tearing across to cover a shrewdly placed grubber from Lee Stensness, Gomarsall made the most dreadful hash of clearing it and Joeli Vidiri took a quick throw-in to Brooke, who crashed over for the try. The problem was that not only was the winger's foot over the line when he threw the ball in, but very nearly his whole body as well.

Despite the fact that the Barbarians had played little competitive rugby for two months, there were no signs of fatigue at the start of the second half when Blowers' try gave them a 13-9 lead. It was then, however, that England roused themselves and enjoyed their only spell of sustained ascendancy. Rallying round their twin pillars in the line-out, Martin Johnson and Simon Shaw, they began to channel their power to maximum effect. First Sleightholme scored on the right after a good build-up and then Stimpson, running powerfully into the line, scored England's second try four minutes later.

It is a never-ending source of wonder how often the New Zealanders succeed in making a virtue out of adversity. The street wisdom and experience of their hardened core of forwards began to turn the tide in their favour. Mehrtens and Spencer kicked three penalties between them to restore the Barbarians' lead before Spencer with his unforgettable try and Vidiri, with stunning pace scored the fourth in the right-hand corner. Throughout the match their nimbleness of thought and fleetness of foot were constant reminders of how the game should be played, and if England have learned nothing else from this game they will at least know now how far adrift they are from the best in the world.

England: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), A Adebayo (Bath); M Catt (Bath), A Gomarsall (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), T Rodber (Northampton), C Sheasby (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps).

New Zealand Barbarians: C Cullen (Manawatu); J Vidiri (Counties), A Ieremia (Wellington), L Stensness (Auckland), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury); M Allen (Taranaki), S Fitzpatrick (Auckland, capt), O Brown (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), R Brooke (Auckland), M Jones (Auckland), T Randell (Otago), A Blowers (Auckland). Replacements: D Mika (Auckland) for Randell 56; C Spencer (Auckland) for Mehrtens 58.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).

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