RUGBY UNION: England emerge with pride intact

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New Zealand A 18 England 10

"A SPOT of rain never did anyone any harm," mused Dave Sims as England's chastened tourists left the sulphurous odours of the Bay of Plenty for the freshly flooded farmlands of Waikato on Saturday afternoon. The weather- beaten rugby folk of Gloucester know enough about inclement weather to turn the prevailing conditions to positive advantage and sure enough, Sims and his fellow members of the Kingsholm quintet took enormous pride and pleasure in standing toe to toe - or, rather, flipper to flipper - with a highly-rated New Zealand pack for 80 hugely therapeutic minutes.

England did not win the match, but neither did they suffer the widely predicted mauling from Stormin' Norm Hewitt and his bristling brat pack of All Black wannabes. Under the circumstances, it was a minor triumph, not least because the fragile morale of a squad mortified by the events of Brisbane a week earlier was restored to something approaching an even keel. The players will still be "bricking it", as they like to say nowadays, as the build-up to this weekend's Dunedin Test gathers pace, but the debilitating air of helplessness has evaporated.

Flawed as it may have been, the performance in Hamilton has given Clive Woodward, the national coach and selector-in-chief, something other than a set of shredded fingernails on which to chew. He will almost certainly acknowledge Phil Greening's world-class performance at hooker by promoting him to the Test side ahead of Richard Cockerill and if he has any sense at all, he will find a place for Steve Ojomoh in the back row. A true pragmatist might give Sims and and his fellow Cherry and White lock, Rob Fidler, a gallop as well, although Garath Archer and Danny Grewcock are likely to be granted an opportunity to atone for their anonymity against the Wallabies.

Outside of the Kingsholm cabal, there were striking contributions from both Ben Clarke, the most canine of blind-side "dogs", and Nick Beal, who brought a much-needed sense of security to the outside centre position. Both should face the Blacks at Carisbrook. Was it entirely coincidental that two of the more experienced members of England's romper-suited party should have been instrumental in plugging the sprinkler system of holes that appeared so suddenly in Brisbane? Answers on a postcard, please...

"Had we possessed a little more control at stand-off, we would have won the game," pronounced Woodward, whose temperature approached spontaneous combustion levels as he watched Josh Lewsey's tactical grip plummet into free fall after the interval. Quite rightly, the coach has made a virtue of his refusal to subject his own players to a public tongue-lashing, but he could not help pointing to the Bristol youngster's misplaced bravado in launching intricate passing movements from unrealistic field positions, not to mention an indiscipline with the boot that twice cost his side prime attacking platforms.

However, Woodward also highlighted Lewsey's outstanding defensive work, which included two charge-downs on Lee Stensness, his opposite number, as well as a tackle count designed to put many a loose forward to shame. "Josh is in brilliant shape; he's a very strong young man, our best defensive stand-off by a mile," said the coach. It remains to be seen whether Alex King, Woodward's original choice for the No 10 last November, can use tomorrow's awkward encounter with the unknown quantities of the New Zealand Academy to confuse the outside-half issue still further.

There is a more clear-cut look to the New Zealand selection debate, especially now that Jonah Lomu has bulldozed his way through sufficient brick walls and barn doors to confirm his fitness. The left wing from hell was every bit as disconcerted by the monsoon conditions as the average Joe, but when he was given an opportunity to give it the full works, he sent Englishmen flying to all points of the compass. Not even Clarke could hold him as he stampeded into the England 22 four minutes into the second quarter and when he popped up moments later to contribute a second burst, Andrew Blowers was able to ease Caleb Ralph over at the right corner.

That setback signalled the start of England's most purposeful spell. With Greening very much in the box seat - so many red rose hookers have talked a good game down the years that it was a relief to see one live up to his own hype - they rattled the New Zealand eight to the tips of their toes. Sims and Fidler worked the old Gloucester one-two to manufacture a slick try from a close-range line-out and Greening might easily have added a second following Clarke's clattering run shortly before the half- time whistle.

Unfortunately for the tourists, the New Zealanders reacted to those indignities in time-honoured fashion. On came Jon Preston, the influential Wellington scrum-half, to slide his nasty little grubber kicks up and down the touchlines and he performed his act so flawlessly that Tom Beim, out of position at full-back, spent the second half fielding handfuls of thin air.

The pressure told quickly, Kees Meeuws ploughing forward from a quick line-out to unlock the door for Stensness, who dummied Lewsey en route to the posts. Adrian Cashmore, who came into the game on the back of 22 consecutive successful goal-kicks and duly landed his first penalty before miscuing the conversion of Ralph's try, made no mistake from a far simpler position and then proceeded to thump a penalty out of the Waikato sludge to complete the scoring.

"We expected England to come up with something far better than they showed in Brisbane and we were right," said Graham Henry, the New Zealand A coach. "That trip to Aussie was a suicide job; all the heat and humidity, a night kick-off, no warm-up game and, for good measure, a Wallaby side at the top of its form. I thought they were better prepared for this match, although I'd want to see some of their players in dry conditions before I made any sort of judgement on them."

Dry conditions? Nothing would suit England less. As long as it keeps raining, Woodward may yet escape this God forsaken trip with his sanity intact.

New Zealand A: Tries Ralph, Stensness; Conversion Cashmore; Penalties Cashmore 2. England: Try Fidler; Conversion Lewsey; Penalty Lewsey.

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, captain), 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, captain); A Windo (Gloucester), P Greening (Gloucester), W Green (Wasps), R Fidler (Gloucester), D Sims (Gloucester), B Clarke (Richmond), S Ojomoh (Gloucester), P Sanderson (Sale). Replacements: D Crompton (Richmond) for Green, 68.

Referee: P O'Brien (Southland).

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