As Leonard Cohen almost sang but didn't quite: "I've seen the World Cup future, brother, and it's murder." The Leicester-dominated England hierarchy – Martin Johnson, John Wells and one or two others who reached the sunlit uplands of the European game by travelling a hard road through its darkest and most brutal alleyways – were given a glimpse of cutting-edge rugby union, southern hemisphere style, here yesterday, and if there was something beautiful about what they saw, it was anything but uplifting for them this close to a global tournament on foreign shores.
The Crusaders from New Zealand, shot through with All Blacks and determined to put the best of themselves on display before a 35,000-strong crowd in the first game of Super 15 rugby ever played this side of the Equator, scored four tries in a first-half display that touched the very heights.
They were in London as a direct consequence of the earthquake that wreaked such destruction on their home town of Christchurch, yet the mood of their rugby was anything but careworn, still less doom-laden. If Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams were jaw-droppingly good in midfield, there were contributions from less celebrated individuals, such as the wing Sean Maitland and the flanker Matt Todd, that might have made every international coach sit up and take notice. How can a team lose a genuinely great loose forward like Richie McCaw to injury, and then conjure up someone as good as Todd out of thin air to take his place?
You could almost hear Johnson, the red-rose manager, thinking: "OK, so we can't play like the Kiwis. What we can do is get hold of them up front, squeeze them until their pips squeak, swamp the tackle area, stick the ball up our jumper and make them cry with frustration." Good idea. England beat the ever-dangerous Australians in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final by doing precisely this.
The problem? South Africans do these things better. The Sharks, blown to the four winds in the opening 40 minutes, redoubled their physicality after the interval and forced the Crusaders to dig extremely deep for their victory. The intensity summoned by the men from Durban was above and beyond anything anyone managed during the Six Nations.
Yes, there were some soft tries scored. One, by the Sharks outside-half Jacques-Louis Potgieter directly from a restart, was nothing short of an embarrassment, not least for the All Black scrum-half Andy Ellis, who flapped at his opponent in a style that would have disgraced a member of the Old Muckyduckians Under-eights. For this reason, those traditionalists who wonder whether this Super 15 stuff is all it's cracked up to be will stick to their guns. Where tackling is optional, they argue, the rugby cannot be real.
Yet were they to ask Carter whether it was real out there, they might find themselves on the wrong end of a withering stare. The world's best back limped off midway through the second half, just as Kieran Read, the first-choice All Black No 8, walked gingerly from the field at the half-time whistle, never to reappear. Ryan Kankowski, the Springbok back-rower? He was smashed to kingdom come by Williams in wholly illegal fashion, yet stayed on the pitch for the duration. Bismarck du Plessis, one of the strongest hookers in the game, was hit very hard in the opening minutes, as was his brother Jannie, one of the more physically capable tight-head props. Candyfloss? Eat this stuff off a stick, and you'd break your teeth.
If the Sharks, 34-18 adrift at the break, made a ferocious game of it in the second period, the lasting memories were provided by the majesty of the Crusaders' midfield play and finishing power, aided and abetted by a committed scrummaging effort against an all-international Bokke front row. Williams's off-loading – off-loading of the ball, that is, not the off-loading of a shoulder straight into Kankowski's jawbone – has been the talk of international rugby for some months now. Yesterday, the centre's actions in this department demanded that new words be spoken.
Maitland's first try, scored on the "wrong wing", followed a trademark Williams delivery out of the tackle – a spark fanned into full flame by Carter and Zac Guildford.
Hard scrummaging by the loose-head prop Wayne Crockett and some predatory work on the floor from the impressive Read then gave the 10-12 axis another chance to burn a hole in the Sharks defence, Carter completing the job on this occasion. Israel Dagg, pretty much as quick as his name is spectacular, was the next to touch down after some bewildering sleight of hand featuring Ellis, Carter and Robbie Fruean, and when Guildford capitalised on some stunning defensive work by Todd, making fools of both Kankowski and Odwa Ndungane en route to the line, it looked as though the Crusaders would score 60.
In the event, they fell some way short of that mark. But the points they did score, and the way they scored them, exposed England's approach to midfield play during the Six Nations in all its narrow-minded futility. A fine red-rose centre of yesteryear, Simon Halliday, suggested at the weekend that the current combination of Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall, supported by Matt Banahan, is some way short of ideal. After watching this, he might have gone very much further.
Ironically enough, it was Halliday who, back in the 1980s, mastered the prototype of the Williams-style off-load – the round-the-corner pass out of contact – and opened up new ways of attacking for a Bath team willing to push the boundaries. The Crusaders, and by extension the All Blacks, have an entire team ready and able to do difficult things in different ways.
"We need to keep reminding the people back home of the rugby we're trying to play for them," said Todd Blackadder, the Crusaders coach and fully-fledged legend of Christchurch rugby. "This is their team, and we want them to be proud of us." They must be that, and more.
Scorers: Crusaders: Tries Maitland 2, Carter, Dagg, Guildford. Conversions Carter 4, Berquist. Penalties Carter 3. Sharks: Tries Alberts, Potgieter, Hargreaves, Ndungane. Conversion Potgieter. Penalties Potgieter 2.Crusaders I Dagg; S Maitland, R Fruean (A Whitelock, 68), S Williams, Z Guildford; D Carter (M Berquist, 67), A Ellis (K Fotuali'i, 68); W Crockett, C Flynn (Q MacDonald, 54), O Franks (B Franks, 47), B Thorn (C Jack, 76), S Whitelock, G Whitelock, M Todd, K Read (capt; J Poff, h-t).
Sharks L Ludik; O Ndungane, S Terblanche, M Bosman, L Mvovo (JP Pietersen, 51); J-L Potgieter (A Jacobs, 57), C McLeod (C Hoffman, 75); J Smit (T Mtawarira, 53), B Du Plessis, J Du Plessis (E Van Staden, 79), S Sykes (G Mostert, 68), A Hargreaves, K Daniel, W Alberts (J Botes, 71), R Kankowski.
Referee: S Walsh (Australia).