Rugby Union: Spencer's boot rescues All Blacks

ERP XV 11 New Zealand 18
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The Independent Online
Another All Black midweek game, another massacre? Not on your life. A scratch English Rugby Partnership XV bursting with ambitious young wannabes fresh out of nursery school took the imperious New Zealanders every inch of the way in front of a rapt 18,000 crowd at Bristol City's Ashton Gate stadium last night. There were no fireworks from the tourists; indeed, they had to fall back on Carlos Spencer's boot and a late pushover try from Aaron Hopa to keep their unbeaten record intact.

It was a startling display of uncomplicated, unfazed enthusiasm from the ERP underdogs and their efforts should add further fuel to the confidence now beginning to burn amongst the grown-ups in the full England side. Tim Rodber, back on representative duty for the first time since last summer's Lions tour, enjoyed his fair share of big moments, but it was his inexperienced tight five who made the greatest strides against the most formidable opposition imaginable.

Richard Hill, the ERP coach, was understandably delighted in the light of last week's 59-22 demolition of his Emerging England side. "This team did not clap eyes on each other until Sunday and I think a number of them did their careers no harm," he said. "Last week we made 92 tackles but missed 20 and you can't beat the All Blacks with a statistic like that. This time we set ourselves the target of making every tackle that was there to be made, and there was definitely an extra bite in that department."

There were two significant moments before the kick-off. The first saw Sean Fitzpatrick, the previously incapacitated New Zealand captain, restored to the replacements' bench, his knee problems apparently behind him. The second featured an All Black haka uninterrupted by any hairy-chested English attempt at psychological oneupmanship.

The ERP players were not backwards in coming forwards once the game began, however, and it took the tourists more than 10 minutes to extricate themselves from their own half. Typically, though, they struck while the iron was hot. Mark Carter ripped the ball away from Chris Sheasby, Jeremy Stanley and Anton Oliver provided the necessary muscle and when Glen Osborne outstripped Tim Stimpson on the left wing, Spencer was on his shoulder for the scoring pass.

Yet the ERP forwards had more edge to them and with Kevin Yates and Phil Vickery anchoring a reassuringly stable scrummage, they were regularly able to launch their back-row runners. Stimpson cut the deficit to a point with two penalties, one from half-way, and they finished the first 40 with a flourish. John Bentley followed up a try-saving tackle on Osborne with a spectacular stampede into the New Zealand 22, while Richard Butland put a highly kickable drop-goal attempt wide.

If anything, the English competitive spirit intensified after the break though they might easily have conceded again in the 46th minute, Greenstock and Spencer Brown combining to cut down Todd Miller and Brown then racing across field to produce the tackle of the night to stop Tana Umaga dead in his tracks a couple of metres from the line.

Far from being two scores in front, the All Blacks soon found themselves four points adrift, Martyn Wood pot-holing his way beneath a pile of bodies after a quicksilver dart from Brown and a couple of heavy-duty driving mauls.

Time, clearly, for the tourists to get serious. On came Fitzpatrick, the supreme professional, and on came Walter Little, the brilliant North Harbour centre. And over went two heartbreaking long-range penalties from Spencer to pave the way for Hopa's no-frills finale nine minutes from time.

ERP XV Try: Wood; Penalties Stimpson 2. New Zealand: Tries Spencer; Hopa; Conversion Spencer; Penalties Spencer 2.

ENGLISH RUGBY PARTNERSHIP XV: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Bentley (Newcastle), N Greenstock (Wasps), M Allen (Northampton), S Brown (Richmond); R Butland (Bath), M Wood (Wasps); K Yates, M Regan (both Bath), P Vickery, D Sims, R Fidler (all Gloucester), T Rodber (Northampton, capt), C Sheasby (Wasps), P Sanderson (Sale). Replacements: A Long (Bath) for Regan, h/t; R Winters (Bedford) for Sims, 65; S Benton (Gloucester) for Wood, 75; J Worsley (Wasps) for Sanderson, 77.

NEW ZEALAND: T Miller (Waikato); T Umaga (Wellington), J Stanley (Auckland), S McLeod (Waikato), G Osborne (North Harbour); C Spencer (Auckland), J Preston (Wellington); M Allen (Manawatu), A Oliver (Otago), C Barrell (Canterbury), C Riechelmann (Auckland), M Cooksley (Waikato), T Blackadder (Canterbury, capt), A Hopa (Waikato), M Carter (Auckland). Replacements: S Fitzpatrick (Auckland) for Oliver, 60; W Little (North Harbour) for Stanley, 63.

Referee: R Davies (Wales).

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