If Martin Johnson is really unlucky – and luck seems to have it in for him just at the moment, along with the sportswear designer who dresses him in a tracksuit top at least three sizes too small – he will find his England team drawn with New Zealand and Scotland when the 2011 World Cup pools are cobbled together in London this afternoon. Or perhaps South Africa and Italy. Or Australia and Fiji. Or indeed anybody. Steer clear of those Bulgarians, for God's sake. They won 18-12 in Luxembourg at the weekend, and no one gets out of Stade Josy Barthel alive without having something about them.
There was one faintly reassuring note to be heard amid the tolling of the bell for English rugby at Twickenham on Saturday: the manager's post-match address to those demanding an explanation for this latest record humbling on home soil. Having set out for a gentle stroll along Soft Soap Alley – his side had "competed", there had been "lots of good things", they had "made a very good attacking side look average" – he suddenly turned on his heels and marched back into Realityland by rejecting an opportunity to praise his forwards for the intensity of their effort before the interval. "Christ, that had to be the absolute minimum," he muttered. "If we hadn't done that, there would have been no point bothering in the first place."
Johnson had seen the same game as the 82,000 ticket-holders in the stands and was therefore perfectly aware that the English scrum had again been exposed in all its fragility, that his players' work around the breakdown had been even more wildly undisciplined than in the heavy defeat by the Wallabies a fortnight previously, and that the All Blacks had made more unforced errors in the space of a single contest than they would usually expect to commit in an entire tour, yet had still won by the unprecedented margin of 26 points – the equivalent of five unconverted tries and then some.
England just about edged the line-out but finished second everywhere else, except in the yellow card department. They won that little spat 4-0, thereby spending precisely half the game a man short – a cunning plan of the Baldrick variety if ever there was one. Two of the miscreants, the outside-half Toby Flood and the replacement flanker Tom Rees, were the victims of rough justice meted out by the spectacularly officious referee, Alain Rolland, who will make one hell of a traffic warden when he gives up this rugby lark. The other two, Lee Mears and James Haskell, deserved all they got. Especially Haskell, whose attempt to stiff-arm Rodney So'oialo at a ruck towards the end of the first half was: a) not very bright; and b) so poorly executed that he managed to hit Mils Muliaina on the back first.
The fact that England conceded only nine points while down to 14 men – 13 men at times, thanks to the failures of Haskell and Flood to wait for colleagues to be paroled from the sin bin before entering it themselves – said something for their determined manning of the barricades. This will have come as some relief to Mike Ford, the defence strategist, who had recently seen too many soft tries conceded to be entirely confident of continued employment by the Rugby Football Union. The All Black scores at the weekend were the result of a bad scrum (hardly Ford's fault), a flash of genius from Carter (ditto) and an 80-metre breakout from a turnover on the New Zealand 22, which can happen to any side attempting to play catch-up against backs as dangerous as Sitiveni Sivivatu and Ma'a Nonu.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the third and final try was the lack of involvement from Conrad Smith, the outstanding player on the field. The centre from Wellington, proud owner of a law degree as well as a rich rugby intelligence that sets him miles apart from the common herd, played so beautifully here that it was almost an insult that he did not score all 32 of his country's points. His contribution to Muliaina's first try, bang on the hour, said everything that needed saying about his performance: an effortless gather of a ball bouncing wickedly along the floor and an instinctive transfer to the looping Nonu, who promptly put Joe Rokocoko in pole position to complete the scoring pass.
Muliaina's second crossing of the red-rose line, seven minutes later, was just as striking on the eye, coming as it did from Carter's wonderful running chip, the brilliance of which would have been appreciated by Pele or Tostao, or any other member of the great Brazilian football team who elevated their sport into an art form in Mexico almost four decades ago. Carter's kicking was not quite as good from the floor as it was from the hand, which was probably as well. He let 13 points slip by – points that would have taken New Zealand's tally past that registered by the Springboks seven days beforehand and broken yet another record.
"It was worth the price of the ticket just to see him miss those kicks, because he doesn't miss many," said Johnson, wryly. He used a similar tone in reflecting on England's single try-scoring opportunity, which came at the very start of the second half when Delon Armitage ran back Carter's restart kick, Riki Flutey flicked a decent pass inside under pressure and Nick Easter pinned back his No 8's cauliflower ears and hoofed it into the All Blacks' red zone.
Wrong-footed for a moment, the accomplished Muliaina brought the big Harlequin to earth with the flick of a fingertip, and the attack ended, some minutes later, with Michael Lipman's fumble a few metres short of the line. Jimmy Cowan ran the turnover ball out of defence, Toby Flood caught him marginally high with a brave cover tackle and was promptly sent to the cooler. "That passage of play just about summed up our autumn," said the manager with a grimace.
He might have added that it summed up red-rose rugby, for when it comes to taking opportunities, his countrymen are about as ruthlessly efficient as a poodle in a dogfight. In their last nine matches against the three Sanzar nations, full-strength England sides have scored the grand total of five tries, while conceding 22. The New Zealanders, by some distance the most threatening of the southern hemisphere superpowers with ball in hand, were not at their most destructive on Saturday – in truth, they had been off their attacking game all tour – but it hardly made much difference. Nothing in rugby matters terribly when you don't concede any tries at all.
"We've played 15 matches this year and won 13 of them," said Graham Henry, their head coach, without so much as a trace of the self-satisfaction that was once his hallmark. "I'd have grabbed that with both hands back in June." Johnson has won once in four attempts – six if you count the Tests on the summer tour of New Zealand, for which he selected the squad. He would grab anything with both hands right now, even a defeat of less-than-record dimensions.
England: D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), R Flutey (Wasps), U Monye (Harlequins); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), N Kennedy (London Irish), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: M Stevens (Bath) for Vickery, 54; T Rees (Wasps) for Lipman, 59; H Ellis (Leicester) for Care, 62; D Hartley (Northampton) for Mears, 69; T Croft (Leicester) for Easter, 69; D Hipkiss (Leicester) for Sackey, 75; D Cipriani (Wasps) for Noon, 77.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Waikato); J Rokocoko (Auckland), C Smith (Wellington), M Nonu (Wellington), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), J Cowan (Southland); A Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), N Tialata (Wellington), B Thorn (Tasman), A Williams (Tasman), J Kaino (Auckland), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: J Afoa (Auckland) for Tialata, 57; K Read (Canterbury) for Kaino, 57; I Toeava (Auckland) for Smith, 71; A Boric (North Harbour) for Thorn, 71; P Weepu (Wellington) for Cowan, 72.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
Tries Muliaina 2, Nonu; Conversion Carter; Penalties Carter 5
Penalties Flood, ArmitageReuse content