Rugby Union: Red rose scent of recovery

New Zealand 40 England 10
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New Zealand 40 England 10

SIX MORE tries, a 30-point winning margin and sublime performances from two of the most gifted backs ever to don a jockstrap in anger; all things considered, now is not the obvious moment to suggest that the All Blacks are on the slippery slope to humdrum mediocrity. Yet, those Englishmen still able to walk without the aid of crutches left Auckland with a spring in their step yesterday. Not simply because they were leaving the Land of the Long White Shroud, as the gallows humourists have rechristened this hard and ruthless rugby country, but because they believe New Zealand will be eminently beatable in next year's World Cup.

It is an assertion that will inevitably reduce the success-soaked connoisseurs of Carisbrook and Eden Park to hysterics; from Brisbane to Rotorua via Invercargill, England have generated more laughs than Billy Connolly on a hot streak and the very thought of the red rose choking the life from the silver fern at Twickenham in 16 months' time will leave them for dead in the backstreets of Paekakariki. The tourists lost the two-Test series 104-32 and by 15 tries to four. By any reasonable measure, they are light years behind the men in black.

But to resurrect a hoary old sit-com refrain, John Hart did not get where he is today by taking scorelines at face value. The New Zealand coach readily accepted that his side found England a veritable pain in the unmentionables on Saturday and was entirely sincere in his view that the All Blacks, who have never lost a Tri-Nations match, will start as third favourites when they renew hostilities with South Africa and Australia next month.

The New Zealand machine looked in dire need of an overhaul in Auckland; the ageing front five were blowing hard by half-time, the half-backs were away with the fairies, the midfield backs signified next to nothing for all their sound and fury and poor Jonah Lomu's only discernible contribution to the afternoon's entertainment was a brief spat with Richard Cockerill, a gloriously comic vignette that left the man mountain looking just a little daft. Seldom, if ever, has the All Black production line been so dependent on the inspiration of individual genius. Jeff Wilson, who can now be counted among the very greatest wings of this or any other era, was magisterial in both attack and defence - two outstanding tries and a try-saving tackle on Josh Lewsey were by no means the sum of his accomplishments - while Carlos Spencer, electricity made flesh, came off the bench to run England ragged as they tired in the final quarter. Without that toothsome twosome, the Blacks might well have spluttered to a standstill.

"I do not have the slightest doubt that when we play them at Twickenham next year, our forwards will worry them sick," said Clive Woodward, the England coach, who flew into Auckland in time for kick-off after breaking his tour to attend the funeral of his father. "We have the backs to hurt them, too, although very few of them are on this trip. It's awkward to talk in terms of positives when we've just been beaten by 30 but, after four weeks on the road, we finally hit on the right selection and the correct game plan. A lot of guys came away from Eden Park with their heads held high and I find that pretty encouraging."

Those standing tall today include Graham Rowntree, Ben Clarke and Matt Dawson of England's old guard. More excitingly still, a number of white- shirted sprogs laid down a marker for the future: Rob Fidler, Pat Sanderson, Josh Lewsey, Jos Baxendell and, in particular, Phil Vickery all succeeded in blurring Woodward's World Cup thinking. "We wanted to come home with six or seven fresh options," said the coach. "We've got them, too. If you look at our loose forwards, for instance, we now have five or six who would make any Test side around."

Not even the Blacks would reject emigration papers with Vickery's thumbprint at the bottom. He may need to work on weight and fitness but he was a huge handful for the first hour of a fascinating Test, the most striking aspect of a prodigious all-round performance being his ability to make wide tackles on players blessed with rather more in the way of pace. One monster hit on Josh Kronfeld was a therapeutic sight for sore English eyes. It is not, however, remotely enough to reach the 60-minute mark within a score of the opposition and then leak four tries without reply. The Blacks did not so much hurt the tourists with their elite squad of "impact" replacements as blow them to the four winds. Joeli Vidiri, a Lomu with added attitude, took all of five minutes to record his first Test try while Isitola Maka left small piles of English dead dotted across the Auckland paddock. And Spencer? Incomparable. The man has what it takes to dominate the 1999 World Cup every bit as completely as Lomu defined the 1995 tournament.

Always assuming the Blacks find ways of giving Carlos the ammunition he needs, of course. If Hart is not lying awake at night worrying about his forwards, he has either lost the plot (fat chance) or he is putting on a brave face for the New Zealand public. His front five, in particular, is descending the far side of the mountain after an enormously productive stint at the coalface and without the perpetually injured Michael Jones, his back row has about as much balance as a Cliff Brittle policy document.

England have been embarrassed on this tour and there may well be worse to come against the Springboks in Cape Town at the weekend. But the sight of Matt Dawson, bruised and battered almost beyond repair, reaching deep into his rugby soul to put a humdinger of a try past the likes of Taine Randell, Andrew Mehrtens and Christian Cullen restores at least a smidgen of credibility to the English game.

New Zealand; Tries Wilson 2, Mayerhofler, Vidiri, Maka, Randell; Conversions Spencer 3, Mehrtens 2. England: Try Dawson; Conversion Dawson; Penalty Dawson.

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, 61; 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).