Rugby Union: The game of their lives

Dallaglio takes his England heroes to a breathtaking new level as they stretch the world's best
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The Independent Online
England 26 New Zealand 26

Tries: Rees, Hill, Dallaglio Tries: Mehrtens, Little

Pens: Grayson 3 Pens: Mehrtens 4

Cons: Grayson Cons: Mehrtens 2

Half-time: 23-9 Attendance: 75,000

At LAST. After three weeks of travelling in an ever-darkening tunnel, there is light at the end of it. Great shafts of the stuff setting aglow not only the game in this country but in the entire hemisphere. This was a stupendous rugby match played at a stupefying pace and with a ferocious intensity sustained from beginning to end.

To the heroic industry of recent performances, England added a razor's edge which, incredibly, brought them three dazzling tries in the first quarter. Even more fantastical than the scoreline at this time was the fact that England had the audacity and the confidence to take on the world's most intimidating defence and blast great holes in it.

Perhaps the All Blacks seriously believed that they could give England a 20-point start and get away with it. They certainly never got out of cruise control in the first half and lost even more possession in this period than they did two weeks ago at Old Trafford. The difference then was that they always had the game under control. But at Twickenham England were not only snatching the ball away from them, they were running away with it, reducing the All Blacks not just to mere mortals but to the rank ordinary. It is, of course, invidious to select individuals for special praise in what was a performance of collective skill and spirit seldom equalled on this famous ground.

The turbanned heads of Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio seeping blood popped up wherever and whenever the battle raged at its fiercest. They put in countless shuddering tackles and along with Richard Hill, another magnificent performer, they set up wave after wave of England attacks. In this the backs demonstrated a hitherto hidden store of intuitive wit and genuine pace. David Rees was staggeringly effective in his running and, although his opposite number Jonah Lomu proved impossible to hold at times, Rees will surely never play better.

In a game in which the ebb and flow opened up innumerable scoring opportunities there were possibly three critical points. One was Matt Perry's tackle late in the first half on Andrew Mehrtens. With Christian Cullen running round on the loop for the scoring pass, Perry sent the All Black into orbit and a certain try was saved. Then, when Jeff Wilson was racing up in support of Taine Randall, the flanker's fatally delayed pass was correctly adjudged to be forward by the referee Jim Fleming. England's third stroke of good fortune came five minutes into injury time when Paul Grayson's second penalty provided them with a 14-point cushion at the interval. Had the All Blacks scored as the Springboks had done last week so close to half-time England would surely have been powerless to hold out, but now they had a fighting chance.

It was a chance that few would have begrudged them. They had shaken the All Blacks to the core with a controlled blend of passion and power. Rees was the embodiment of that in the eighth minute when he fielded Mehrtens' kick on his own 10-metre line and shook the All Blacks rigid with the speed and determination of his run to the corner. He squeezed in under a couple of covering tackles and England were on their way. Before the crowd had settled back on their seats they had scored again. This time Hill was at the end of a move which began with Austin Healey and was carried forward by Will Greenwood. Grayson could not convert either but there was the rare sight of the All Blacks bewitched, bothered and totally bewildered.

They went into a huddle for an instant bonding session but it did not work. Mehrtens kicked a penalty but England's contemptuous response was to score again. This time Frank Bunce lost possession and Dallaglio, with a fly hack upfield, held off Lomu of all people to touch down under the posts. Grayson converted this one and 75,000 pairs of eyes stared in astonishment as the scoreboard flashed 17-3 in England's favour after just 18 minutes. Had the world gone mad? Could this be true or was this some dream from which we would soon awake to face harsh reality?

It was true all right, and what is more it was to get better with Grayson's first penalty kick. At this point the All Blacks were entering unfamiliar territory and began to display a less appealing side to their game. Justin Marshall's constant querying of the referee's decisions bordered on intimidation and there were other signs of needless petulance. More ominously there were also signs of recovery. The All Blacks raised the pace appreciably and it was only a thunderous covering tackle by Hill which kept Norm Hewitt out. England's defence was coming under mighty pressure as their opponents faced up to the gravity of the situation. Mehrtens began to eat away at England's lead with three penalties. Even so, England's position at half- time, although certainly not unassailable, was more than they could ever have hoped for.

We knew it would be different in the second half. Lomu came more and more into the picture and although England always succeeded in stopping him they had to commit at least three players to do it. Gaps were beginning to appear and with the scorching pace of Cullen and Walter Little the scores had to come. Sure enough, Mehrtens crossed for the simplest of tries and, after the fly-half had kicked his fourth penalty, Little, with a breathtaking burst, went through three defenders to score. It had taken the All Blacks over an hour but now for the first time they were in the lead.

From somewhere, and only their maker can know where, England found the strength to launch another series of attacks. But for Wilson's alertness they might have scored the winning try. Instead they had to settle for Grayson's third penalty to tie, but the glow from this incredible match will warm the hearts of Englishmen everywhere.

England: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), W Greenwood (Leicester), P de Glanville (Bath), A Healey (Leicester); P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: T Stimpson (Newcastle) for Rees 10-20; C Sheasby (Wasps) for Back 22-31; Stimpson for De Glanville 60; M Dawson (Northampton) for Bracken 63; M Regan (Bath) for Cockerill 63.

New Zealand: C Cullen (Manawatu); J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), W Little (North Harbour), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury, capt); M Allen (Manawatu), N Hewitt (Southland), O Brown (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), R Brooke (Auckland), T Randell (Otago), Z Brooke (Auckland), J Kronfeld (Otago). Replacements: C Riechelmann (Auckland) for Kronfeld 34-36; C Spencer (Auckland) for Little 63; S McLeod (Waikato) for Bunce 74.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).