Rugby Union: Clarke raises the standard

Old-fashioned Gloucester grit brings England dignity in defeat as tourists rebuild their shattered confidence New Zealand A 18 England 10
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND did not exactly throw a party here last night, but they were making no apologies for cracking open a beer or two in sheer relief.

Last weekend's unprecedented humiliation in Brisbane left Clive Woodward and his tourists fearing a deluge yesterday and sure enough, they encountered one. Fortunately, it was not quite the sort the more pessimistic members of the squad had in mind.

The New Zealand second-string's attacking intentions, publicly signalled by the selection of Glen Osborne and the extraordinary Jonah Lomu on the wings, were in effect washed into the Waikato River by a prolonged downpour of biblical proportions. They scored two tries, one a minor miracle of wet-weather handling finished off by Calab Ralph, the 21-year-old Auckland centre, but even though they spent the entire second half camped in England's 22, the apocalyptic conditions undermined any serious attempt at running rugby.

Generally speaking, Englishmen travel to the far corners of the earth in search of some respite from the rain. The 15 Brits on view at Rugby Park yesterday took a very different view; the more it poured, the more they liked it. None more so than the five Gloucester members of a forward pack completely restructured in the light of the Brisbane embarrassment and better for it. Each and every one of them stood up to be counted against a highly rated New Zealand eight and at least two, Phil Greening and Steve Ojomoh, deserve a Test place against the All Blacks in Dunedin next weekend.

So too does Ben Clarke, who brought to the occasion both an implacable competitive spirit and a hard-earned understanding of the realities of rugby New Zealand-style. Aided and abetted by the enthusiastic Pat Sanderson on the open-side flank, Clarke and Ojomoh repeatedly carried the ball into the very epicentre of a no-holds forward battle and, for good measure, turned over opposition ball almost at will.

Indeed, England's first-half performance threw up the tantalising possibility of a win every bit as unexpected as the scale of the massacre they had been forced to suffer at the hands of the Wallabies. Ralph threw down the gauntlet with a stiletto-sharp strike in the right corner after 24 minutes and Lomu, a man- carrier rather than a ball-carrier, twice made dents the size of the North Island in the English 22 before Andrew Blowers sent his provincial team-mate over with a cleverly manufactured cut-out pass - but this time, there would be no capitulation.

England had already threatened through Matt Moore, the Sale wing, who narrowly failed to make the line at the New Zealanders' right flag after a thrilling surge from Greening, whose all-round game at hooker touched the very heights during the opening 40 minutes. When a second opportunity presented itself seven minutes before the break, they made it count. Greening found his clubmate, Dave Sims, at a close-range line-out and in traditional Gloucester fashion, Rob Fidler peeled around the edge of a perfectly organised maul to claim the five points. Josh Lewsey added the conversion to his earlier penalty to open up a 10-8 interval lead.

All of which concentrated New Zealand minds wonderfully. Graham Henry, the Auckland coach placed in charge of the All Black second-string after turning down a move to England last summer, pulled his master stroke by introducing Jon Preston for the second period. The Wellington scrum-half, a "been there and done it" sort of player, soon imposed a crafty kicking game on the tourists, repeatedly turning Moore and Dominic Chapman on the English wings and, more damagingly still, catching Tom Beim way out of position at full-back.

Beim was hardly to blame, of course; Woodward's decision to play him in an unfamiliar role against opponents of such quality was risky in the extreme. With Lee Stensness, the Auckland stand-off, also keen to exercise his right boot rather than the three-quarters outside him, Beim spent much of a frustrating second 40 watching the ball roll into touch inches from his eager clutches.

On one such occasion, a quick throw gave Kees Meeuws, a bull of a tight- head prop from Otago, the chance to test the solidity of England's first- up tackling and even though he was brought crashing to earth a few feet short of the line, he made sufficient progress to present Stensness with an opportunity to dummy Lewsey and scuttle over behind the posts. Adrian Cashmore chipped over the conversion and then slotted a penalty 14 minutes from time to complete the scoring.

Woodward now has some itchy decisions to make on the Test selection front. Does he play Clarke at blind-side at the expense of Ben Sturnham, one of the few positives to emerge from the debris of Brisbane? Does he plump for one of his young stand-offs, Lewsey or Jonny Wilkinson, or call in the more experienced Alex King, even though the cultured Wasp has yet to feature on tour? And what happens in midfield? Nick Beal looked the part at outside centre yesterday, but Jos Baxendell's faithful impersonation of a curate's egg did little to solve the dilemma surrounding the inside position.

With one game left before Dunedin - Tuesday's encounter with the New Zealand Academy in Invercargill - the time for experimentation is almost up. New Zealand's prized collection of Test understudies may not have put England to the sword yesterday, but it is difficult to imagine Taine Randell and company losing much sleep. Apart from anything else, Lomu did enough damage in Hamilton to guarantee himself another rumble at Carisbrook's "House of Pain". Ouch.

New Zealand A: A Cashmore (Auckland); G Osborne (North Harbour), C Ralph (Auckland), J O'Halloran (Wellington), J Lomu (Counties); L Stensness (Auckland), R Duggan (Waikato); K Nepia (Canterbury), N Hewitt (Southland, capt), K Meeuws (Otago), B Larsen (Northland), N Maxwell (Canterbury), A Blowers (Auckland), X Rush (Auckland), S Robertson (Canterbury). Replacements: R Willis (Waikato) for Maxwell, h-t; J Preston (Wellington) for Duggan, h-t; T Umaga (Wellington) for Lomu, 57; G Slater (Taranaki) for Willis, 67.

England: T Beim (Sale); M Moore (Sale), N Beal (Northampton), J Baxendell (Sale), D Chapman (Richmond); J Lewsey (Bristol), M Dawson (Northampton, capt); A Windo (Gloucester), P Greening (Gloucester), W Green (Wasps), R Fidler (Gloucester), D Sims (Gloucester), B Clarke (Richmond), S Ojomoh (Gloucester), P Sanderson (Sale). Replacement: D Crompton (Richmond) for Green, 68.

Referee: P O'Brien (Southland).