Rugby Union: Losers but winners in defiant north

Andrew Longmore sees an English side refuse to lie down and accept the inevitable
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As the losers did a lap of honour to a chorus of "Land of Hope and Glory", the winners sat dejected in the dressing-room, knowing they had fallen short of their billing as the greatest of all time. Not that the Old Trafford crowd cared one jot. They endowed the first international outside the capital since the Second World War with a footballing fervour, a sense of occasion so notably absent in the tepid caverns of Twickenham last week. Not a few members of the Rugby Football Union should be red- faced that it has taken so long to tap the reservoirs of goodwill in the frozen north. The last time England played union in Manchester, Queen Victoria was on the throne and Gladstone was Prime Minister. But the response of the England side to a century of frustration was eloquent enough.

In defeat, they tackled and ran themselves to a standstill and if, in the calm of the morning, they will reflect that long passages of pressure, of forward dominance worthy of the All Blacks themselves, could not be traded in for points, partly because of muddled thinking behind the scrum, partly because of a suffocating black blanket, the level of commitment could not be faulted. "I've never known anything like it," Clive Woodward said of the intense reception accorded the England side. "The New Zealanders must have felt they were right in the lion's den. I've never seen our dressing-room so pumped up."

Had Mike Catt chosen to kick with his rugby boots not his carpet slippers, who knows how much closer England might have come. The fly-half missed four straightforward penalties and never found the right range kicking from hand. The sight of Paul Grayson, the most natural place-kicker on the island, warming up five minutes from time only added to the wishful thinking. But having missed - by no more than a foot - a kick for touch which nestled instead in the ample arms of Jonah Lomu and led to the first try, Catt's nerve snapped like rotten elastic. It took Lawrence Dallaglio and Phil De Glanville, present and past England captains, to persuade him to continue with the place-kicking. There was no other option.

That England had not been downcast by the cool analysis of their chances by the assistant coach, John Mitchell, the previous day was apparent from the testosterone-packed pre-match rituals. Reprieved from the usual formalities, the England players linked arms like a paper chain and David Rees sang as if he would never hear the national anthem again. No doubt the New Zealander Mitchell had something to do with the brazen defiance shown by England in the face of the All Black haka. Like Willie Anderson's Irishmen, England understood that, if the whistle had not yet blown, the game had already begun.

As Norm Hewitt led the familiar war cry: "Kamate Kamate Ka Ora Ka Ora," he found Richard Cockerill, like a photographic negative, staring him in the face a metre away. Hewitt accepted the challenge and edged forward, rather less equally, Kyran Bracken was buffeted by Craig Dowd, all 6ft 3in of New Zealand prop. "They laid on the challenge and we accepted it - that's what it's all about isn't it?" said the Leicester hooker later. A fair comment on the game. Urged by Mitchell to take the All Blacks out of the office and play in the backstreets, a more appropriate battle hymn for industrial Man- chester than suburban Twickenham, the England side did just that, knocking the fluency out of the All Blacks, sustaining the momentum to the end.

For that, England should take real hope back to Twickenham. For Jonah Lomu, laid low by a career-threatening kidney disease, merely running on to an international field for the first time in a year was a triumph. He will have better games. So, sadly for England, will the All Blacks.