New Zealand had Daniel Carter, England had Charlie Hodgson and it was such an unfair contest that the twain might never meet again. Carter, the world's greatest stand-off, went through his repertoire before being replaced. Hodgson, too, was taken off, but in entirely different circumstances.
When Carter departed 11 minutes from time to a great Auckland ovation, he had contributed 22 points – a sumptuous try and seven successful kicks at goal from seven attempts – and a lot more besides. Poor Charlie left the field in silence early in the second half, fuelling speculation that his England career was, finally, finished.
The All Blacks exposed England with purple patches either side of half-time. With the score 23-13, England were hanging on at the interval courtesy of Topsy Ojo's opportunism, but then Ma'a Nonu, the white and yellow ribbons on his dreadlocks flying horizontally, brushed aside an attempted tackle by Hodgson, who went too high and was left for dead. Nonu made the most of his midfield break by floating out a scoring pass to Mils Muliaina. One missed tackle is all it takes and there would be no second chance for Hodgson.
New Zealand soon made it 37-13 when Luke Narraway's desperate pass to Steve Borthwick was fumbled by the England captain and Carter intervened to send Sitiveni Sivivatu over for try number four. It was Sivivatu's 23rd try in 23 Tests.
Rob Andrew, the acting England manager, had seen enough. Jamie Noon came on for Hodgson, who was replaced at fly-half by Olly Barkley, who shuffled across from inside centre. In his wisdom, Andrew elected to take only one out-and-out outside-half to New Zealand. Having elected yesterday to undermine Hodgson's fragile confidence, he will probably start with Barkley at No 10 in the Second Test in Christchurch on Saturday.
Remarkably, England had made 11 changes from their last match, the 33-11 victory over Ireland in the Six Nations in March, and Andrew Sheridan was the only survivor from the side that started the World Cup final in Paris eight months ago.
"We have moved on from the World Cup," Andrew said before the match. "I'm not sure New Zealand have. We are looking at the next generation of players and we couldn't get a better place to start. New Zealand are under self-inflicted pressure. There's no pressure on us at all. Sometimes the best way to learn to swim is to be chucked in at the deep end. I hope this is the start of a new era."
If England have moved on it is only in the sense of replacing their head coach, Brian Ashton. No pressure? England were facing a blitz at Eden Park and if this was supposed to be a bright new dawn, then heaven help them. As for the swimming lessons, the red-rose brigade, apart from a promising start and a spirited end, were out of their depth.
We knew the young Wasps flanker Tom Rees was exceptional and yesterday he confirmed it in the highest class as he went toe to toe with Richie McCaw. But elsewhere England (they have won only twice in New Zealand, in 1973 and 2003) were not really up to the task. This was the 30th Test between the countries and the All Blacks now lead 23-6. There has been one draw.
"Our effort was faultless," Borthwick said afterwards. "We're going to work very hard over the next week. What we've got to do is cut our error rate."
The previous week neither the All Blacks nor Carter had been impressive in grinding out a win over Ireland in appalling weather in Wellington. "We knew it would be very physical against England and it was," McCaw, the All Blacks' captain, said. "It was a step up from the game against Ireland."
New Zealand will be expected to up the ante again next week, for Graham Henry will be disappointed that his side, in much better conditions, failed abysmally to control possession in the final quarter. Their line-out went AWOL and 15 handling errors enabled England to partially escape a hook which at one point threatened to leave them totally gutted.
England had had a 6-3 lead early on but it seemed like a mirage when Carter took command, his chip creating the first try, for Conrad Smith, in the eye of a confused defence.
After his beautifully worked try, in situ with Sivivatu, Carter showed his human side, having a pass intercepted by Ojo, who raced 80 metres for a "14-point try". It was a genuine Topsy- turvy moment after the All Blacks had seemed certain to score. All credit to Ojo, who now has one cap and two tries, the second coming from a clever kick by another debutant, Danny Care, who did enough to suggest that he could start next week ahead of Richard Wigglesworth.
Once again, though, the show belonged to Carter. He will shortly be strutting his stuff in Europe. Lucky Europe.Reuse content