England 19 New Zealand 23: Robinson's rose shows new shoots after taking All Blacks to the limit
A devout vegetarian, Andy Robinson looked as though he had been force-fed one of Desperate Dan's cow sandwiches, complete with offal and a full set of hooves. The England coach accepts defeat in the way the Spanish Inquisition accepted heresy, and when, in the immediate aftermath of a Test match so compellingly brutal that the number of stitches in the home dressing-room had to be calculated by the gross, he was asked for his verdict on a red rose performance of epic tenacity against the best team in the world, he spurned the opportunity to talk a good game.
"There is no delight," he said. "Quite the opposite. I'm distraught. Why? Because that was a golden opportunity missed, and at this level against these opponents, opportunities are few and far between. We played with courage, with application, with passion. And we lost."
Which they did. There was no getting away from it. Taken together, England's triptych of virtues - courage, application, passion - equalled the kind of momentum Robinson craved and demanded on this most challenging of afternoons against a New Zealand side operating somewhere near the peak of its remarkable powers.
What they did not attain was a brand of attacking rugby sufficiently subtle to dismantle the All Black barricades and provide the most deserving of the home forwards, from Steve Thompson and Steve Borthwick in the tight unit to the magnificent Pat Sanderson in the back row, full value for their efforts.
It is fairly pointless to bemoan the absence of a Daniel Carter or a Doug Howlett in English rugby, for they are not to be found anywhere else in the world either. Only a very select group of players currently on the international scene would come within a bull's roar of a place in the New Zealand back division - indeed, the wonderful French centre Yannick Jauzion may be on his own in his regard - and as the tourists demonstrated at an unusually vocal Twickenham on Saturday, the chances of running round them are so distant they verge on invisibility.
But the All Blacks are not watertight. Leaks have been known to occur. The Springboks put three tries past them in Dunedin last August, the Wallabies managed four in Auckland in September. Sadly, England are simply not dangerous enough with ball in hand to do likewise. Notwithstanding the increasingly influential presence of Charlie Hodgson at outside-half, they do not currently possess the divine spark. The backs ought to be constructing mansions on the foundations laid by the forwards. Instead, they are building wigwams.
And yet, Robinson should, and probably will when he thinks about it for longer than a few seconds, take considerable encouragement from this latest entanglement with the silver fern. Borthwick, whose performances in the autumn series have made his initial omission from the squad even more perplexing than it seemed at the time, gave Chris Jack and Ali Williams a serious hurry-up at the line-out - a feat wholly beyond the Lions last summer.
Sanderson, devoting the whole of himself to the cause in his unaccustomed role of blind-side flanker, demonstrated that it is possible to compete with the All Black back-rowers in the loose. Thompson, the butt of much recent criticism, matched Keven Mealamu every step of the way - and Mealamu's display was very special indeed.
In a sense, even England's traumas in the scrum were a source of reassurance. Andrew Sheridan, hyped to the high heavens after his performance against a couple of Wallaby pacifists the previous week but only three caps old in international terms, had more than his share of difficulties with Carl Hayman, 20-odd caps his senior; Phil Vickery, never the craftiest of tight-heads, was consistently out-manoeuvred by the excellent Tony Woodcock.
As a result, the red rose pack had to make their hay in different parts of the field - at the line-out, on the gain-line, in the very eye of the storm. This, they did. By the end, the All Blacks were on their rear ends, dragging down mauls and killing ruck-ball and paying regular visits to the sin bin.
"I guess it was one of those 'whatever it takes' situations," admitted their flanker, Chris Masoe, who, along with Woodcock and the mountainous Neemia Tialata, found himself on the wrong end of Alan Lewis's yellow card. "I'd say it was the most physical game I've encountered, but we held the line." That line might have been broken decisively eight minutes from the end of normal time had England opted for an attacking line-out rather than a kick at goal with the tourists temporarily down to six forwards, but they preferred the likelihood of three points to the mere possibility of seven. "I was surprised," said the New Zealand captain, Tana Umaga, "but there again, it wasn't my call."
Umaga made calls of a different kind, all of them bang on the money. Behind as early as the third minute to Martin Corry's maul-over try from Danny Grewcock's catch-and-drive routine, he pulled his players into the tightest of huddles under the posts and gave them the benefit of his warrior's wisdom.
"England scored so early that it was as if the game hadn't started," he said. "So that was the point I made. I told the team we'd begin again from scratch." And when the going got really tough in the final quarter? "It was about hanging together, looking after each other and digging deep."
Some player, some captain. The more the years weigh on him, the more Umaga's leadership matters to the unnervingly young band of players under his command. Like Martin Johnson in 2003, he has stripped himself of every last vestige of sporting illusion. Winning is the beginning, the middle and the end, and he understands the imperatives on which victory rests. If this was the least pretty of All Black triumphs, he could not have given less of a damn. Take a look at the man's face. Umaga does not do pretty.
Just as he had when the Lions scored early in the Wellington Test last June, the captain made it his business to respond, materialising on Carter's shoulder at the optimum moment to maximise the stand-off's midfield break into the English red zone. Carter's pass was forward, as it happened - and there was more than a whiff of a knock-on at the start of the move that resulted in Mealamu's close-range try in the opening minutes of the second half - but as Robinson later admitted, any intervention from the referee would have been a travesty of justice. "They'd slit us open," acknowledged the coach. "Fair play to them."
Once Mealamu, who made the first big statement on behalf of the tourists by smashing the significantly more substantial Sheridan to kingdom come in open field, had tunnelled his way across the line to open up a 10-point advantage, the chances of an honest-to-goodness but one-dimensional England chasing the game successfully were less than great. The Australians and the French might have managed it with their artistry and adventure, but not the world champions. Not these days, at least. Strain as they might in the final minutes, they remained smothered in their own claustrophobia.
But as Robinson pointed out, the core of a new red-rose side is beginning to emerge. The lion's share of this pack will surely serve, and prosper, at the next World Cup. All they need now is some big cats with sharp claws outside the scrum.
England: J Lewsey (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester), B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), M Dawson (Wasps); A Sheridan (Sale), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), P Sanderson (Worcester), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt). Replacements: M Stevens (Bath) for Sheridan, 79.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Auckland); D Howlett (Auckland), T Umaga (Wellington, capt), A Mauger (Canterbury), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), B Kelleher (Waikato); A Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), C Hayman (Otago), C Jack (Canterbury), A Williams (Auckland), J Collins (Wellington), C Masoe (Taranaki), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: N Tialata (Wellington) for Masoe, 61-83; J Eaton (Taranaki) for Williams, 68-71; P Weepu (Wellington) for Kelleher, 78; J Rokocoko (Auckland) for Sivivatu, 79; M Tuiali'i (Canterbury) for So'oialo, 83; L MacDonald (Canterbury) for Mauger, 85.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).
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