Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, New Zealand; even on paper it looked a schedule devised by a sadist or the Rugby Football Union accountant. But by the end of a torrid second half yesterday, the milometer was clicking too fast. England's style is wearing on nerve and limb.
"We had a pretty good first half, but ran out of legs in the second," Clive Woodward, the England coach, said. "We seemed to lack direction once Mike Catt went off." Quite what direction the much maligned England fly-half had given his side in the first half, one or two of a Twickenham full house might question. Until he was stretchered off on the stroke of half-time with a badly cut head, courtesy of an accidental elbow from Henry Honiball, Catt's own contribution had been typically erratic, a mixture of bold tackling and edgy touch-kicking. Despite his seizure at Old Trafford the previous week, the England management had kept faith with this mercurial footballer in the belief that confidence in his invention will pay dividends in the end.
It was to Catt's eternal credit that his first two kicks sailed through the posts. The award of the first penalty, from about 40 yards, was greeted with the sort of frisson normally heard just before curtain-up in the West End. Catt must have been aware of the significance of the moment, but if his heart was racing, his rhythm, as fluent this week as it had been stuttering seven days before, was exemplary. No time for thought; place the ball, a couple of deep breaths and away. The crowd were as cheered as the man himself. The kitten had grown tiger's stripes.
Yet moments later, an errant touch kick found James Small in the same position as Jonah Lomu at Old Trafford, ball in hand with space and time to accelerate and pick the options. Only desperate England defence saved the day. But when Woodward heaped lavish praise on his fly-half afterwards - "Catty had an outstanding first half, he kicked fantastically" - you began to wonder who was trying to fool who. Even groggy in hospital, Catt will know his international future is far from secure.
England might also be wondering where two defeats and a draw against the toughest possible opposition in the southern hemisphere leaves them. Matt Dawson proved a reassuring presence behind the scrum - a second-half tackle was worthy of Lawrence Dallaglio - and the back row, with Neil Back sniffing and snapping like a gun dog, were mighty once again. They, like the crowd, must be beginning to despair. Blood and guts are essential qualities, but without a dash of creativity they are nothing. Time and again in the first half, the backs were handed golden ball; time and again, a lack of pace and invention proved costly. Not once did an England back break the solid phalanx of the South African defence, not once did the wings, David Rees and John Bentley, get the chance to take on their opposite numbers and run for their lives.
England's one try, like Phil de Glanville's the previous week, stemmed from a fearful defensive muddle, instigated by Pieter Rossouw - a schoolboy howler, thoroughly and beautifully un-South African. But on his Twickenham debut, Nick Greenstock will not care one jot. A scramble for the line and a dive worthy of an Olympic swimmer took the Wasps centre under the flailing tackle of James Dalton. "If he'd caught me, I would have been ribbed for the rest of my life," Greenstock said later. But what would England give for a runner as elusive and well-balanced as Andre Snyman, whose burst through the heart of the England defence and swerve round Matt Perry was a salient reminder of the absence of Jeremy Guscott.
But Greenstock's try was the high point for England. Buoyed by a forwards' try just before half-time, the world champions reviewed an error-strewn opening and narrowed their gaze for the second half. England barely saw the ball again. Another tilt at the All Blacks, then relief. And the comfy pillow of the Five Nations.Reuse content