If the autumn series was a World Cup, England would have been knocked out twice, with this fitfully encouraging but ultimately comprehensive defeat added to that by Australia a fortnight ago. Instead it has been something of a phoney war, with a succession of meaningless baubles such as yesterday's Hillary Shield at stake. The genuine prize is the ability to weed out the weak and improve for the battles to come, even if for Martin Johnson it may feel like picking the diamonds out of the dung.
"We won last week [against Argentina] and lost this week, yet everyone seems to be happier losing," said Johnson, the England manager, correctly cutting through the crap. "I think as a group we have moved forward, though I understand if people disagree with that from what they've seen on the field."
This match of many errors by both teams was effectively over in the 67th minute when Dan Carter's fifth successful kick out of seven –and the eminent fly-half's two misses were by no means his most difficult attempts – gave New Zealand a 13-point lead. But it did not feel that way at the time, such was England's fight and enthusiasm which carried a crowd not always on their side this autumn with them to the end. It needed a little post-match sang froid to set in to realise that England's inability to finish off promising positions was paramount. A smart give-and-take between Steve Thompson and Simon Shaw at the front of a line-out caught the All Blacks napping just before the hour. But the move eventually petered out with a forward stuck in midfield rather than moving the ball on, which remains England's searingly painful Achilles heel.
England made twice as many tackles as the All Blacks and there were other, longer-term statistics which bear repeating. The try by Matt Banahan against the Pumas last week was England's only one this autumn; New Zealand made it eight victories in a row against the mother country, extending a record sequence in the fixture, and this was their 19th European win in a row since November 2002, when they lost to a team captained by Johnson and drew in France.
It was going to take more than the muscle with which Johnson packed his side to buck that trend, even if an injury-hit New Zealand have deviated from their much mocked tendency to peak midway between World Cups. The return of Shaw for England was a boost; the lock had previously been one of six of his country's Lions absent injured this autumn, in addition to ever-presents from last season, Delon Armitage and Nick Easter. There was admirable pluck too from Mark Cueto at full-back and Dylan Hartley at hooker; the latter throwing long and safely at a defensive line-out when he had just stuffed up further upfield.
On the flipside, Joe Worsley limped off with knee ligament damage in the third minute, and a generally unimpressive Banahan was one of many Englishmen to suffer butter fingers. The most memorable contributions by Carter and Jonny Wilkinson were in defence: the New Zealander cut down Tom Croft on a steaming run after 72 minutes, mimicking a fine chase and smother by Wilkinson on Zac Guildford earlier in the half.
When Carter had missed from 35 metres, head on to the posts, after seven minutes, he still needed two points to overhaul Andrew Mehrtens's New Zealand record of 967. As is sometimes the way, Carter then landed a monstrous kick from halfway and he made the score 6-6 from the 22 after the second of two penalties by Wilkinson. When Carter missed a second sitter in the 35th minute – Tim Payne was penalised for not binding on a tricky afternoon for the Wasps loosehead prop – England were surely grateful to be level at half-time.
Carter put New Zealand ahead for the first time in the 47th minute, and 10 minutes later came the only try. Steve Borthwick,whose time to hand over as captain may have arrived before Wales open the Six Nations here in February, manfully attempted to stem the flow, stepping through a ruck. But Jimmy Cowan and Sitiveni Sivivatu combined expertly with Richie McCaw to work the scrum-half, Cowan, over at the left-hand corner. Carter converted.
"I'll never be happy with a defeat but I was proud of the guys, one to 22," said Lewis Moody who, with James Haskell, can reflect positively on his autumn. England had played with their heads up and that is a source of hope. Much less surprising was Johnson's reply when asked whether his coaching team was the one he wanted to carry on with: "Yes, absolutely."
England: Man for man marking
MARK CUETO 6/10
Solid at full-back, all things considered, but one thing we should all be considering is why England can't raise a specialist No 15. However well Cueto plays at the back – and he played well enough here – he's a winger.
MATT BANAHAN 6/10
Absolutely banjaxed Sivivatu on the first kick-off; two minutes later he smashed Smith. Made a few more marks on a few more All Blacks, though he could do the square root of sod all about Cowan's try.
DAN HIPKISS 5/10
Missed Carter for what could have been the first try, but wasn't thanks to Monye and Croft. Later on made a break, got his legs pumping, and ran straight into contact to give away a penalty for holding on. There was a kind of inevitability about that, sadly.
AYOOLA ERINLE 6/10
Tackled his tackling task perfectly well. Didn't offer much more, but nor did his team as a whole.
UGO MONYE 6/10
Might've had a try from a less sharp-eyed ref after putting good pressure on a Kiwi attack from deep early on. Certainly stopped Muliaina in the corner, with Croft in a fine double tackle and, in general, looked much happier and much better back on the wing.
JONNY WILKINSON 6/10
Still seemed to be standing a little deep in attack – when he got flatter he put Monye away. Front-up tackles were a little loose – he can even end up propelling opponents towards his own line, when his arms don't wrap round after the hit – one track-back effort on Guildford, however, was a beauty. Missed a drop-goal when England had their best attacking chance. Can't quite see Carter doing that.
PAUL HODGSON 7/10
Pinged about like a cueball fired into a triangle of All Blacks and was one of the few England players to look, in general, sharper than his opposite number. Is starting to look, in general, like a very good player indeed.
TIM PAYNE 6/10
Did something naughty enough to get an 'If I see that again' and a finger towards the sideline from Mr Kaplan. It turned out to be a couple of punches on Hore, and Carter kicked three points as a result. Tsk. Limped off with 15 minutes to go.
DYLAN HARTLEY 6/10
Faced the haka impassively and was impressive around the field again. Line-outs were good until a wobble at the start of the second half saw him substituted.
DUNCAN BELL 6/10
Put in his fair share in defence but, with his front-row mates, couldn't extract much in the scrum in his first spell on the field. Came back for Payne and had a little more success.
SIMON SHAW 7/10
Very influential in the first half – hard yards round the ruck, clever lines of running in midfield for the benefit of others. Gave away a few penalties but earned a good one with a line-out one-two with Thompson. Lasted 65 first-rate minutes and was missed when he went off.
STEVE BORTHWICK 6/10
Worked very, very hard, particularly at the breakdown, and it's down to his influence that the line-out is, generally, very strong. Not much more he could have done.
JOE WORSLEY 5/10
Took the ball in the first minute... and limped off injured. Ah, well.
LEWIS MOODY 7/10
Got to Carter from the kick-off and gave him what for, and spent the rest of the afternoon flying about like a hyperactive blond toddler in need of a quick shot of Ritalin. Gave away his fair share of penalties in so doing, of course.
JAMES HASKELL 6/10
Pumped his legs off the back of the scrums, got himself pinged at a ruck for 6-6. As per. Quite effective, but not quite effective enough. As per.
It was hard to believe that Tom Croft was on the bench to begin with, but he came on for Worsley after two minutes anyway and got on with a very Worsley-like role. Came as close to scoring as anyone, with a burst of pace late on. Steve Thompson came on for Hartley and took one against the head. Looked sharp. David Wilson came on for Bell and shored up the scrum. Shane Geraghty on for Erinle, which wasn't quite like for like. Louis Deacon on for Shaw. Danny Care on for Hodgson. Mathew Tait on for Banahan.
New Zealand: Man for man marking
MILS MULIAINA 7/10
Became the second-most capped All Black, behind Sean Fitzpatrick, and showed, as usual, why that has come to pass. Seriously quick when he sees a gap, seriously solid in defence. Seriously good.
ZAC GUILDFORD 6/10
Pretty strong for a pre-teen with a boyband member's first name... and pretty quick too. If he has a Test career as long as Simon Shaw's, he'll still be playing in 2024. That's... four more World Cups. Yikes.
CONRAD SMITH 6/10
Almost, with Carter, put Muliaina in the corner with New Zealand's first real attack. Always looked intelligent and dangerous next to his, shall we say, less sophisticated opponents.
MA'A NONU 6/10
A straight up and down player, New Zealand-style – meaning he's a crash-ball merchant who can also do the odd special thing. Not that he had a chance to do anything special here.
SITIVENI SIVIVATU 6/10
Got Banahan in the teeth first up and looked as rattled as he ever does for some time. Meaning, not very, and he made Cowan's try, with McCaw, with aplomb.
DAN CARTER 6/10
Got Moody in the teeth first up and looked rattled enough to miss his first penalty kick – which was conceded by... Moody – and then lose a couple of balls. Was soon his country's highest scorer, thanks to an enormous penalty but he wasn't quite in the groove, however you looked at it. Proved he can do a McCaw when he has to by exerting a determined grip on ball and man and snuffing out Croft's late break on the floor.
JIMMY COWAN 6/10
Bit slow at the back of the rucks – caught there by Borthwick once, which must have been embarrassing, and then again for what became 6-3 England. And then he was caught by Shaw. Lawks. Did score the only try, however.
TONY WOODCOCK 6/10
The senior man in the All Black front five – he lasted the whole game and though England's replacements made a better fist of the scrums, the black pack stayed standing.
ANDREW HORE 6/10
Line-outs weren't pretty even before Payne stuck a couple of blows plum in the middle of his mush. Maybe that explained why the scrum lost against the head to Thompson. Was in on the tackle on Croft with Carter at the end, though, to keep his team's line intact.
BEN FRANKS 6/10
The All Black front row, judging purely on the count of free-kicks and penalties won from Mr Kaplan, were just about on top, most of the time. So whatever he, Hore and Woodcock were doing, they did it well enough.
BRAD THORN 6/10
Brad Thorn, continuing Test career of, decline of New Zealand line-out. Discuss, using both sides of the paper. Then again, he's a right old bruiser around the pitch, as Hartley and sundry others will, gingerly, confirm this morning.
TOM DONNELLY 6/10
As powerful, mobile and skilful as three England locks, by the look of it, but New Zealand have never been short of powerful, mobile and skilful locks and they may never have had quite so dodgy a line-out as they do now. Hmmm.
ADAM THOMSON 6/10
Socks down, looks like a sevens player. Plays a bit like one too, ranging around wider out, looking to create things. Did some valuable work at the shorter line-outs his team were forced to switch to.
RICHIE MCCAW 8/10
Won his side's first penalty by fastening on to Shaw on the deck. Whodathoughtit. Gave away the first three points by flopping on to the wrong side and staying there. Also whodathoughtit. Might as well change his name to 'Seven Out!', but that only shows how clever he is in defence, so there's no point whining about it. He's quite good in attack too, as his handling for Cowan's try showed.
KIERAN READ 6/10
Started strongly, and you have to be strong to take out Simon Shaw on a kick-off, which he did. Or Mr Kaplan said he did, anyway. A pain in the arse at almost every ruck in, for his team, an entirely good way.
Anthony Boric on for Donnelly, one scrumcapped enormo-athlete for another. Jerome Kaino on for Thomson. John Afoa on for Franks. Andy Ellis on for Cowan, very much like for like in looks and skills, late on.
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