Rugby Union: Dawson sparks fightback

New Zealand 40 England 10 Tries: Wilson 2, Mayerhofler Try: Dawson Vidiri, Maka, Randell Con: Dawson Cons: Spencer 3, Mehrtens 2 Pen: Dawson Half-time: 14-7 Attendance: 44,000
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The Independent Online
FIRST, the good news. England's rag-tag battalion of shellshocked no-hopers put king-sized dents in one or two All Black reputations at an eerily quiet Eden Park yesterday, reducing Andrew Mehrtens to a state of chronic indecision and, better still, forcing an embarrassed New Zealand management into replacing Jonah Lomu with a full quarter still left on the clock. And the bad news? Look at the scoreline. New Zealand barely put a foot right, yet still they emerged with six tries and a 30-point winning margin.

In so doing, they sent an alarming message to the rest of the rugby world, including their forthcoming Tri-Nations opponents. If the first-choice Blacks mess up - even this lot are allowed the occasional off-day - the reinforcements are capable of resuming normal service in the flash of a substitution. Joeli Vidiri and Isitola Maka could not have made greater impacts had they taken the field in armoured cars, while Carlos Spencer came galloping to the rescue like a cavalryman on speed.

For an hour, England scrummaged, rucked, mauled and tackled with a rare passion. Brisbane was erased from the memory, Invercargill was consigned to the dustbin of sporting history and Tuesday's horrendous ordeal in Rotorua seemed a million miles away. The tourists even made light of the late withdrawal of Garath Archer, their kingpin lock; both Dave Sims and his Kingsholm apprentice, Rob Fidler, rolled up their sleeves and stood up to be counted.

There was a quality performance from the back-row collective, in which the young Pat Sanderson gave Josh Kronfeld one or two awkward moments, and some hitherto unsuspected sparks of attacking imagination from Josh Lewsey and Jos Baxendell, the crafty string-puller from Sale. At the fulcrum was Matt Dawson, whose limitless energy brought him a try every bit as ingenious as his famous effort for the Lions a year ago.

And yet. Despite the fact that Taine Randell's All Blacks made more handling errors, leaked more turnover ball and spurned more clear-cut scoring opportunities in the first hour than in the three years since they lost the World Cup to the Springboks, they always bore the stamp of ultimate victors. Even when Dawson's 50th-minute penalty brought England to within a score at 14-10, there was not a single soul amongst the 44,000 crowd who would have backed the visitors on a free bet.

Sure enough, the New Zealand substitutions broke the game wide open, leaving England chasing black-shirted shadows for the final, killing 20 minutes. Jeff Wilson, just about the finest all-round player in the world on this evidence, scored his second try on the hour, outpacing Austin Healey to fasten on to Spencer's measured diagonal kick. Vidiri was on the scoreboard six minutes later, Maka weighed in with a rumbustious try after Christian Cullen had switched on the after- burners and Randell topped and tailed it on the whistle.

It was hard on England, hard to the point of heartbreak. Healey aside - the Leicester Lip may have a fast line in chit-chat but he was nowhere near quick enough to lay more than a finger on Wilson - their defence in the first 60 was as secure as it had been fragile against the Maoris earlier in the week. Lewsey, in particular, was a revelation as a hard, physical midfield hustler.

Wilson had the Blacks up and running within five minutes - the ease with which he slipped Healey was ominous - yet England remained entirely unfazed and reassuringly purposeful, even when Mark Mayerhofler crunched past Lewsey and Sanderson to score near the posts midway through the half. In fact, the tourists themselves were beginning to force the odd opening; Matt Perry, a sound enough full-back but no one's idea of an international goal-kicker, fluffed a sitter from inside the 22 while Dawson missed a more testing chance from 38 metres.

No matter. Dawson finally registered some points shortly before the half- hour mark, capitalising on some prolonged spadework from his pack to give Randell, Mehrtens and Cullen the slip with a hint of a dummy and a sway of the hips. Almost for the first time on tour, England were in a "game on" situation.

And they gave it a lash, bless them. Lewsey atoned for a loose tactical kick by burying Lomu with a tackle every bit as conclusive as Perry's effort in Dunedin seven days previously while Phil Vickery, a big performer on the English tight-head, stopped the rampaging Kronfeld in his tracks with a top-drawer hit. He did something very similar to Anton Oliver a few minutes later.

England even had the temerity to finish the half in better shape than their hosts; Ben Clarke claimed a stretch-over try, only for Peter Marshall to decide that the stretch was a millimetre short. It was as close as the tourists came to a second try. They did notrun out of heart but they very definitely ran out of legs.

New Zealand: C Cullen (Wellington); J Wilson (Otago), C Ralph (Auckland), M Mayerhofler (Canterbury), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), O Tonu'u (Auckland); C Dowd (Auckland), A Oliver (Otago), O Brown (Auckland), R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), T Blackadder (Canterbury), T Randell (Otago, capt), J Kronfeld (Otago). Replacements: C Spencer (Auckland) for Mayerhofler, H-T; N Hewitt (Southland) for Oliver, H-T; I Maka (Otago) for Blackadder, 49; Oliver for Hewitt, 50; J Vidiri (Counties) for Lomu, 62; M Carter (Auckland) for Jones, 64; C Hoeft (Otago) for Oliver, 70.

England: M Perry (Bath); T Beim (Sale), N Beal (Northampton), J Baxendell (Sale), A Healey (Leicester); J Lewsey (Bristol), M Dawson (Northampton, capt); G Rowntree (Leicester), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), R Fidler (Gloucester), D Sims (Gloucester(, B Clarke (Richmond), A Diprose (Saracens), P Sanderson (Sale). Replacements: T Stimpson (Leicester) for Beim, 35; S Ravenscroft (Saracens) for Healey, 70; P Greening (Gloucester) for Cockerill, 75.

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).

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