Before Dylan Hartley departed England worked out what it takes to make the Kiwis blink
His eye an egg, Chris Robshaw convinced as the vanquished captain, but looking around the pitch at the close, having briefly led the best team in the world, there was vindication as well as the scars.
There was only team winning this at the start of play. Indeed, after England had gifted New Zealand a try in the opening 60 seconds en route to a 17-3 lead, the scoreboard reflected the soaring rhetoric. Yet as Graham Taylor never tired of telling us when in charge of England's footballers, no victory is ever as great as the winners would have it and no defeat as bad as the losers feel.
This was a loss that spoke volumes for the beaten, England's best week of the autumn internationals. Robshaw roused his team from the edge of embarrassment to strike fear and doubt into All Black hearts. At 22-20 in arrears the visitors were wobbling. Robshaw was, of course, at the epicentre of the forward thrust, heave upon heave eating into New Zealand hegemony.
The loss of Dylan Hartley to concussion cost England the set-piece platform that underpinned their recovery and, ultimately, the control but not before forging an understanding of what it takes to make the All Blacks blink.
Robshaw is steering his chariot towards a World Cup peak two years hence. With that in mind, England arguably learned more about what is possible in defeat than they did in victory last year.
More than anything, England chipped away at the idea that any team is invincible. Fifteen men in black kits is how former coach Sir Clive Woodward described the opposition before the game, offering Robshaw a neat slogan to slap on the dressing room walls all the way to the World Cup.
When England's forward-led recovery was at its height, New Zealand bled like any team under pressure, shipping 19 points. The bravado of the Kiwi supremacists fell silent under the white hammer. For half an hour they were just as Woodward would have them. The last 10 minutes were the difference. But New Zealand had to dig deeper than they ever thought to make it.
"The difference between the teams is they took their chances and we didn't," Robshaw said, ignoring the ugly, purple bubble that had utterly deformed his left eye. "Rugby is a hard game, pretty physical so you expect to get knocks. There were a couple of mistakes, from me included, some silly penalties. That allowed them to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
"Credit to the lads. The amount of pressure we put them under was outstanding. I'm very proud of the guys. We have had an outstanding three weeks. We are moving in the right direction. That's the important thing. We will keep on learning."
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