New Plymouth is a quiet town at the best of times; today, at the worst of times for the legions of rugby-obsessed Maori who inhabit the lush green acres of Taranaki province, it is positively silent. After decades of first-degree failure in the land of the silver fern, England have finally forced the All Blacks on to the back foot by registering a comprehensive victory over front-line opposition - a victory constructed on the very foundation stones of overt physicality and tactical ruthlessness their hosts once claimed as their own. The sense of shock is tangible.
Consider the following. England had not won a match of any description on New Zealand soil since 4 June 1985, when they prevailed in a tryless contest with Southland in Invercargill. The Maori, on the other hand, had not given best to an incoming touring side since Gavin Hastings' Lions wiped out a 20-point deficit in 1993. What is more, England had barely trained together - "We haven't managed a single contact session since we got off the plane last Wednesday, so to all intents and purposes we were a scratch side," said Paul Grayson, the outside-half - while their opponents had put themselves in the mood with a 47-point victory over Tonga.
Yet England won going away thanks to a forward effort of startling energy, iron discipline and supreme organisation. They scored the only tries of the game - their achievement in locking out a Maori back division boasting Christian Cullen, Rico Gear and Brad Fleming was remarkable in itself - and might easily have expanded on the five-point contributions of Simon Shaw and Andy Gomarsall but for the deluge that swept in off the ocean, half a mile from the Yarrow Stadium. Asked whether his super-sharp backs were fatally compromised by the conditions, Taine Randell, the Maori captain, replied: "Look, Taranaki isn't exactly known for its droughts. This game was on our territory, and we were well beaten."
While Randell, a former Test captain, was reluctant to draw inferences in respect of Saturday's full international in Wellington, he knows the All Blacks can expect a similar examination of their close-quarter credentials. The All Blacks themselves know it, too. Some of last night's crowd were initially dismissive of England's limited approach - "It's like watching those old buggers from the 60s," mocked one supporter as Grayson sent another punishing touch-finder deep into Maori territory - but by the end, they were warmly appreciative of the tourists' brand of no-nonsense pragmatism. Matt Te Pou, the Maori coach, described Phil Vickery's side as the best he had faced in his eight years of stewardship.
There were satisfying individual triumphs all over the field. Vickery saw off Greg Feek, an All Black prop of recent vintage, with half an hour still left on the clock; Joe Worsley reeled off big hits by the dozen, with Feek and Paul Tito among his more notable victims; Shaw and Steve Borthwick reduced the Maori line-out to a state of impotence; and Martin Corry, picked to dish out the flak as well as take it, out-nastied the aggressive Troy Flavell. Away from the bish-bash proceedings at the sharp end, there were eye-catching performances from Gomarsall, Jamie Noon and James Simpson-Daniel.
England were on the board within seven minutes. Sufficiently confident in their own muscular powers to reject kickable penalties in favour of attacking line-outs, they rolled a maul off Borthwick's quality delivery to manufacture a score for the gargantuan Shaw. Grayson then stoked the fires with his goal-kicking - a conversion and a penalty against the elements before the interval, another couple of penalties after it - before Gomarsall extracted full value from his own clean break down the right by crossing from a close-range scrum at the death.
The Maori, who generally score tries for laughs, were not permitted so much as a faint smile; in fact, they threatened the England line just once, when Gear spearheaded a hack-and-hope attack only to find himself beaten to the ball by Ben Johnston. To have restricted so dangerous a side to so fleeting an opportunity was quite something. Suddenly, the All Blacks are feeling the heat.
New Zealand Maori 9
Pens: Jackson 3
Tries: Shaw, Gomarsall
Cons: Grayson 2
Pens: Grayson 3
HT: 6-10 Att: 20,000
NEW ZEALAND MAORI: C Cullen (Wellington); J Maddock (Canterbury), R Gear (North Harbour), R Nicholas (Otago), B Fleming (Wellington); G Jackson (Bay of Plenty), D Gibson (Auckland); G Feek (Canterbury), S McFarland (North Harbour), C Hayman (Otago), K Ormsby (Counties Manukau), P Tito (Taranaki), T Flavell (North Harbour), M Parkinson (North Harbour), T Randell (Otago, capt). Replacements: D Manu (Waikato) for Feek, 51; R Robinson (Taranaki) for Ormsby, 60; W Walker (North Harbour) for Jackson, 64; B Robins (Taranaki) for Maddock, 73; W Ormond (Bay of Plenty) for Parkinson, 80.
ENGLAND: I Balshaw (Bath); D Luger (Harlequins), J Noon (Newcastle), S Abbott (Wasps), J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester); P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens); T Woodman (Gloucester), D West (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), A Hazell (Gloucester), J Worsley (Wasps). Replacements: B Johnston (Saracens) for Balshaw, 47; A Gomarsall (Gloucester) for Bracken, 53; P Volley (Wasps) for Hazell, 61; M Regan (Leeds) for West, 71; A King (Wasps) for Abbott, 73; T Palmer (Leeds) for Corry, 78; M Worsley (London Irish) for Woodman, 80.
Referee: P O'Brien (Southland).Reuse content