Rugby Union: A marvellous day when the impossible seemed plausible

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The Independent Online
The game had been over for an hour and still knots of English supporters stood around savouring a result none had dared to imagine a few hours earlier. "Bloody marvellous" sounds much the same in any regional accent.

Bloody marvellous it was, England's heroic transformation cutting gloomy prediction off at the knees, raising the decibel count at Twickenham to unprecedented levels.

When Paul Grayson converted the try with which Lawrence Dallaglio punished yet another uncharacteristic New Zealand error, a great roar was followed by a buzz of astonishment. England ahead by 17-3 after just 18 minutes, the world's best team in disarray. Surely it couldn't continue.

Another look at Christian Cullen and Andrew Mehrtens, the last appearance in an All Black jersey of Zinzan Brooke, a further opportunity to admire New Zealand's efficiency and imagination. That's what some of us turned up for.

Instead, there was the quite remarkable sight of England shedding their traditionally conservative rugby to such sensational effect that they were disappointed by parity. England were so pleased with their efforts when losing to the All Blacks at Old Trafford that they went on an ill- advised lap of honour. A measure of their progress is the disappointment felt on Saturday. "There's not much celebrating going on in our dressing- room," Dallaglio said.

If there is substance in the view that England were at their peak on a day when New Zealand under-performed, perhaps only the utterly impossible can ever be plausible again.

A week ago I saw an improving Welsh team with backs superior to most in the Five Nations, overwhelmed by New Zealand at Wembley. On a crowded train to Twickenham few were inclined to suppose that England would fare much better. "If we get away with losing by 20 points it will be something to shout about," a burly Yorkshireman said. "More like 30," his companion suggested.

When Brooke trotted out alone, looking somewhat embarrassed by the ceremony, there was in fact a sense of the unusual, the faint possibility that New Zealand might need a firm hand on the tiller.

So it proved. Time waits for no player, and it had not slowed respectfully to a crawl for Brooke and the other All Black veteran, Frank Bunce. As New Zealand found England ever in their faces, one error begat another. Complacency became frustration, much of it the result of England's splendidly positive attitude.

Respected voices were raised in praise for England's improvement. "At last they are realising the importance of keeping the ball in hand and having the fly-half standing flatter so that he can provide better service," a former international said. "It really does look as the old conservative way of playing has been abandoned. If so only good can come of it."

The view held generally at half-time was that England could expect a second-half onslaught and might buckle as they did last week against South Africa. Given the All Blacks' reputation, England's 23-9 lead did not look unassailable, and tackling had already taken a great deal out of Neil Back, Dallaglio and Richard Hill, who gave an outstanding performance.

After England had been worn down by Jonah Lomu's battering, Mehrtens crossed for a simple try, and when Walter Little carved a route through three defenders New Zealand were ahead for the first time. All over bar the shouting you thought, the battle anthem silenced. A lone voice broke it. "Come on England," someone shouted, and the cry was taken up in a second.

The came the the most stirring twist in a match that will go down in memory. Down but not out, England piled back into the contest, dredging up their last reserves of energy. Like never before the Twickenham crowd was behind them. "They were magnificent," Dallaglio said afterwards.

Even then, England's supporters may not have believed that the chance of victory was real, but it was within grasp until Jeff Wilson's tackle prevented a try. When Grayson's third penalty tied the match it had the understandable effect of a triumph.

Still a lot of work for England to do - "As a one-off performance it was OK but we have to sustain it game after game against these guys," the England coach, Clive Woodward, said sensibly - but a stirring game. As the man said, bloody marvellous.