Rugby Union: England ready for the world

David Llewellyn hears the Twickenham captains agree on the home side's progress
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The Independent Online
Possession was nine-tenths of the draw. Say what you like, England showed that they have learned from their southern hemisphere crash course. For the first 40 minutes at Twickenham yesterday they were breathtaking, for the second 40 perhaps a touch breathless, but they held out. The All Blacks paled visibly as England slotted each building block into place.

But neither the captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, nor the coach, Clive Woodward, was going to allow their charges' feet to leave the ground. The foundations have been laid, was the message; now the serious construction work can begin.

"It's a step on the road," said Dallaglio, who had a superlative match in attack, defence and everywhere else. "To play these four matches has been trying, but it has opened everyone's eyes to what is required to become the best in the world. And that remains our ambition - not to catch up with the southern hemisphere sides, but to overtake them."

Woodward, too, was not overstating things. "I'm not sure we are happy," he said. "It was a great game but I am not sure it was a watershed. As a one-off performance it was OK, but we have to sustain it game after game against these guys."

But he endorsed the view that lessons have been learned, saying: "We have a great bunch of players who have responded to a new coaching team." But Woodward had a pop at the schedule: "I would like to know who put this four-match run together. And it is no better in the summer, when we have to go through the same thing again. The only difference being that it is away from home, with four Tests, two against New Zealand, one against South Africa and possibly another against Australia."

The first half and last quarter saw England at their best, while the 20 minutes after the interval was awkward to say the least as New Zealand stepped up a gear, but England were never far behind. They recycled rapidly, thundered into the opposition and continually knocked the All Blacks on to the back foot, and once again, as at Old Trafford, they reduced the usually composed New Zealanders into making uncharacteristic errors, hurrying them into poor passes and worse decisions.

The hard work England put into the first half was exemplified by Dallaglio's try, England's third, at the end of a blistering quarter of an hour or so of compelling rugby as they proved that they can turn possession into points. "That was the most enthralling game I have been party to," their manager, Roger Uttley, said.

England's performance wasimpressive for its continuity. New Zealand barely saw the ball for the opening four minutes as England moved deep into New Zealand territory. That set the pattern for the rest of the half, England competing on an equal footing with the best in the world.

The New Zealand coach, John Hart, reckoned that he had just witnessed "probably the best England performance I have ever seen, because they have never played that way before. They should be proud. It was pretty bloody good. I saw a big improvement; their ball retention has improved substantially since the first Test."

Even when New Zealand began to fight back England stood up to the onslaught well. But their brave first-half showing had cost them dear. They appeared to have knocked the stuffing out of themselves; defensively, yet again, they seemed to have tackled themselves into the ground.

Then back they came. The fly-half Paul Grayson, who was standing flatter, providing his centres with earlier, higher- quality ball, landed the penalty to earn a deserved draw. If this quartet of Tests was to do anything it was to set bench marks, and finally the woodwork is becoming deeply scored with such indicators.

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