Rugby Union: England in great danger of fooling themselves

England 8 New Zealand 25
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The Independent Online
Now that English rugby has marked defeat with a blast of Elgar, a lap of honour and much boisterous abandon, today's Independent offers a range of innovative ideas on how to celebrate a victory. There could be an Rugby Football Union amnesty for those infamous bogeymen, Jack Rowell and Tony Hallett, or an open air Chablis and Rocquefort party at Twickenham (subject, of course, to social status and the usual noise restrictions). Best of all, the denizens of Old Fartdom could produce their own set of commemorative stamps, with a stanza of Kipling on one side and Richard Cockerill's angelic features on the other.

Well, why not? If much of what happened during Saturday's hypnotic opening Test between the red rose and the silver fern at Old Trafford was wonderful, the events of the immediate aftermath ranged from the embarrassing to the completely wacky. We saw the All Blacks, winners by 17 clear points and three tries to one, mooching miserably down the tunnel while the beaten English remained outside to soak up some peculiarly misplaced adulation. Better still, Justin Marshall, the New Zealand captain, reinvented the haka as a gesture of affection.

Genuinely and understandably startled by Cockerill's contemptuous one- man invasion of the Maori "war-dance" - "It was totally disrespectful of our culture," fumed John Hart, the New Zealand coach, whose mood had been further darkened by Martin Johnson's cheap-shot antics - Marshall claimed England had misunderstood the nature of the tradition. "It's not meant to be intimidatory, it's just something we do," he said.

Oh, please. Cockerill's actions were laughably crass, as were those of the Irish captain, Willie Anderson, when he trespassed on the haka in Dublin in 1989, but when you see Jonah Lomu's eyes bulging from their sockets and Norm Hewitt's ugly mug contorted into an expression of purest bloodlust, you become uncomfortably aware that this is no invitation to high tea.

Not even these tourists can fool all of the people all of the time and, anyway, they do not need to try. The worrying aspect of England's reaction to Saturday's defeat was that they were in obvious danger of fooling themselves. John Mitchell, the assistant coach who just happens to come from Waikato and shares the intense hatred of defeat common to all New Zealand rugby folk, spent most of last week attempting to bring "a more competitive mindset" - his words - to the England camp. What did that lap of honour tell the All Blacks about the mindset of their opponents?

Fortunately, England got more right during the 80 minutes that really mattered than they managed in the five minutes either side of the game. They drew every last milligram of inspiration from the intense atmosphere generated by the Manchester crowd, implemented Clive Woodward's intelligent game plan from the outset - hang the ball high on Lomu and he looks about as comfortable as a fish in a tree - and scrummaged and tackled themselves to a standstill.

They also made a few things happen in attack. Lawrence Dallaglio, Kyran Bracken and Will Greenwood all enjoyed high-impact games, both physically and metaphorically, and with the All Blacks merely extremely good as opposed to untouchably brilliant, England were always in business. Mike Catt came close to bankrupting them, admittedly - even though Dallaglio asserted that "you don't beat New Zealand with the odd three-point penalty", the outside-half's failure to deliver with the boot undeniably acted as a depressant - but it was a quantum improvement on the performance against Australia.

"I'm not delighted at losing - in fact, I'm pretty pissed off about it," Woodward said. "But it was a full-on battle, 15 against 15, and I feel a lot different about this than I felt about Australia which, if I'm honest, left me shattered."

Given that the coach had seen three of his original new caps set down clear markers for the future - Greenwood, David Rees and Matt Perry all looked the part - he was entitled to feel a tad happier with life.

Yet one insurmountable fact overshadows both the justifiable optimism and the unjustified merrymaking. The All Blacks had the game topped and tailed and in their collective kit bag by the end of the first quarter, thanks to two flashes of precise rugby that resulted in memorable tries for Ian Jones and Jeff Wilson.

They also went 22-3 ahead when Taine Randell, the pick of the New Zealand forwards, blew Dallaglio away from the back of a close-range scrummage and had it not been for Phil De Glanville's slightly fortunate try, the scoreboard might well have looked more bleak than a wet Wednesday in Invercargill.

At least De Glanville, reassuringly mean-eyed and hard-headed in the wake of defeat, recognised the gulf that still exists between the best and the rest. "We applied pressure, there's no doubting that, but world- class teams have world-class defences as well as world-class attacks. New Zealand have a big, big defence and that is as central to their success as anything. We played well in many ways, but we need to do more."

The real testing ground will be at Twickenham - dear old sepulchral Twickenham - on Saturday week, always assuming a dangerously buoyant South Africa do not inflict terminal damage on a still fragile new England psyche this weekend. It is then that New Zealand will emerge in their true colours, having digested the lessons of Old Trafford and worked out a way of swallowing their opponents whole.

"We made an unusual number of mistakes and played England into the game," said Hart, who was not at all cheerful in victory. "I congratulate our opponents on their urgency and enthusiasm and I think they'll be a lot better for the confidence they found against us out there.

"But we trained poorly in our last session and we played as we trained. We should remind ourselves that we don't win every time we walk on to the paddock, just because we're New Zealanders."

Hart also said something else, though, something England would do very well to take on board when they reassemble in Richmond this evening. "I have to say I was a little surprised at the way they responded to defeat. If you run a lap of honour after losing by 17 points, isn't there a problem somewhere?" Perhaps he should go into politics. John Hart: A Vote for Common Sense.

England: Try De Glanville; Penalty Catt. New Zealand: Tries Jones, Wilson, Randell; Conversions Mehrtens 2; Penalties Mehrtens 2.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), W Greenwood (Leicester), P De Glanville (Bath), A Adebayo (Bath); M Catt (Bath), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), A Diprose (Saracens), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: N Back (Leicester) for Diprose, h-t; A Healey (Leicester) for Adebayo, 57.

NEW ZEALAND: C Cullen (Central Vikings); J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), A Ieremia (Wellington), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury, capt); C Dowd (Auckland), N Hewitt (Southland), O Brown (Auckland), R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), T Randell (Otago), Z Brooke (Auckland), J Kronfeld (Otago). Replacements: A Blowers (Auckland) for Z Brooke, 54; S McLeod (Waikato) for Ieremia, 61; J Preston (Wellington) for Wilson, 80.

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).

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