To many of the 80,000 congregation who gathered together in a spirit of holy English pessimism to watch the national team's ninth successive failure against New Zealand – the blue-bloods and their hangers-on, the corporate titans and their guests, the massed ranks of rugby's smoked salmon-and-Chardonnay set – it was a rum do from start to finish: a contest full of sound and fury, signifying little that anyone could put a finger on. As always, the winners scored their points with an air of easy-going superiority beyond the imaginings of their opponents; as so often, the red-rose forwards huffed and puffed to decent effect, smothering the favourites for long periods before leaving Twickenham with the phrase "next time" on their bloodied lips.
The "next time" might well be at next year's World Cup in the All Blacks' very own backyard, assuming England stay in the country long enough to renew acquaintances with Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter and their brethren. It is widely assumed that the tournament will arrive a little early for Martin Johnson's team – four years too early, possibly – but there were hints on Saturday that this fresh and energetic side, so different to the one that had lost to the same opposition 12 months previously, might finally unearth some evidence that the current regime has a point to it. How the manager and his employers at the Rugby Football Union must be praying that this proves to be true because Johnson's home record against major southern hemisphere opposition is Godawful.
Ben Foden, a part of the elite squad last autumn but denied even a minute's worth of meaningful activity, was terrific at full-back on Saturday and there was much to admire from Northampton club-mate Chris Ashton, who bared his gladiator's soul in recovering from a horrible start against the scarily dangerous Hosea Gear. Ben Youngs? England have a real diamond there, as the equally inexperienced All Black scrum-half Alby Mathewson discovered to his cost. Dan Cole? Anyone who outscrummages a loose-head prop as crafty as Tony Woodcock can consider himself a genuine Test front-rower. Courtney Lawes? Any second-row forward planning on wearing the white No 4 shirt over the next few years will have to persuade the abrasive Midlander that he'd look more fetching in No 5.
Each and every one of these brat-packers – average age, an Adrian Mole-like 22 and 3/4 – either prevailed over his silver-ferned opponent or finished up all-square, and no English rugby player has been able to say that since Johnson led the World Cup-winning vintage to a famous victory in windy Wellington in 2003. Yet they want more than the personal satisfaction of lording it over the other bloke. "I'd rather have won the game," said Cole, narrow-eyed and softly-spoken, on being congratulated on his efforts in the darkened recesses of the scrum.
It is this final step – the winning bit – that is yet to be taken, and the path will stay untrodden as long as England hand players as gifted as Carter, McCaw and the brilliant All Black No 8 Kieran Read the keys to Twickenham as a welcoming present. For half an hour at the start of Saturday's game, it seemed the New Zealanders had been made freemen of London, such were the liberties accorded them.
Repeatedly, they burned Ashton down the left, sometimes frying him to a cinder as Mils Muliaina and Ma'a Nonu worked Gear into threatening positions. The Maori wing's high-class finish at the flag on 17 minutes had been on the cards for the previous 16, and when Read doubled the advantage with an embarrassingly simple try from close range six minutes later – wheeled scrum, Gear off his flank tight to the set-piece, quick ruck, bingo! – few people in the stadium thought England would escape with anything less painful than a 30-point beating. Judging by the look on Johnson's face, a dark mix of anger and apprehension, he was with the majority.
Much to his relief, England reacted positively, slowly but surely finding footholds on the rock face and starting to climb. Two of their "spine" players were at the heart of this ascent: the No 8 Nick Easter, whose performance grew in stature as the game unfolded, and the outside-half Toby Flood, who exposed once again the poverty of the argument that says Jonny Wilkinson is the one true king who must return to save the nation's rugby from ruin. Unless and until the errant Danny Cipriani works out what the hell he wants from his sporting career, Flood will be the main man. If only there were two of him, he could play at inside centre as well.
Come the end, the long-suffering Twickenhamites were in a lather. Dylan Hartley, who lost out to Steve Thompson as the starting hooker even though he is the one with his future in front of him, clattered over for a trademark try after a wildly anarchic spell of rugby featuring a strong challenger for the daftest kick in rugby history, a harum-scarum scamper out of the England 22 by Ashton, a toe-poke downfield from Flood, a blatant offside, an even more blatant obstruction and a ferocious ruck on the New Zealand line that sent players flying in all directions. Had Shontayne Hape, the latest non-English Englishman to find himself playing against his own kind, completed what should have been a stone-cold touchdown as the clock ticked into injury time, the remaining minutes would have been pandemonium-fuelled.
Yet in truth, the tourists brought this on themselves. Their second-half performance was as scruffy, careless and imprecise as anybody could remember, and those who insist that England forced them into it might reflect on the fact that they fell off their standards straight from the restart, chucking the ball along the floor in their own 22 before anyone in a white shirt had come near it. Joe Rokocoko, who perpetrated the aforementioned act of rugby sacrilege by kicking away prime attacking possession when a third try looked inevitable, was merely the worst of the offenders. By the end, even Carter was doing dumb things. But for McCaw and his defensive attributes, they might have found themselves in serious trouble.
Was it arrogance? Over-confidence, perhaps? Did they think they had the game won after 25 minutes? Were they reacting to the public musings of the England defence strategist Mike Ford on the candy-floss nature of southern hemisphere rugby and aiming to insert his words in a place where the dawn never breaks? "We would never, ever think or act like that," insisted the All Black coach Wayne Smith, one of the really serious rugby thinkers of the age. "What happened at the start of the second half was disappointing and worrying, and it changed the tone of the match. But it was the result of our skills breaking down, not the result of a poor attitude."
We have to believe him. But that second-half performance lifted the curtain on lingering All Black frailties and showed why, in a little under a year's time, someone else might have their hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy.
* Keven Mealamu, the long-serving New Zealand hooker, will face an International Rugby Board disciplinary panel over the next few days to face a charge of butting the England captain Lewis Moody during the Test at Twickenham. Mealamu was cited for the alleged offence last night.
England: Try Hartley; Conversion Flood; Penalties Flood 3. New Zealand: Tries Gear, Read; Conversions Carter 2; Penalties Carter 4.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tindall (Gloucester), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), S Thompson (Leeds), D Cole (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Bath, capt), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton) for Thompson 51; D Wilson (Bath) for Sheridan 59; D Attwood (Gloucester) for Palmer 67; H Fourie (Leeds) for Moody 72; D Armitage (London Irish) for Cueto 74; D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs 78.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Waikato); J Rokocoko (Auckland), S Williams (Canterbury), M Nonu (Wellington), H Gear (Wellington); D Carter (C'bury), A Mathewson (Wellington); A Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), O Franks (Ca'bury), B Thorn (C'bury), S Whitelock (C'bury), J Kaino (Auckland), R McCaw (C'bury, capt), K Read (C'bury). Replacements: A Ellis (C'bury) for Mathewson 52; I Toeava (A'land) for Rokocoko 60; A Boric (N Harbour) for Whitelock 74; J Afoa (Auckland) for Franks 83.
Referee: R Poite (France).
The missing link: England's malfunctioning midfield
* England summoned the furies against the world's best team, scrummaging strongly, operating securely at the line-out, generating pressure at the tackle area and running dangerously in broken field. However, once again they were ponderous in midfield.
Toby Flood (outside-half) Flood was the least of England's problems in this problematical area. The Leicester player missed an important first-half penalty, but his game-management was sound and his physicality excellent. He even had the nerve to give the All Black captain Richie McCaw a little "Stead and Simpson" on the floor. Good on him.
Shontayne Hape (inside centre) The New Zealander was little better than ho-hum. He made most of his tackles, but was infinitely less threatening than his opposite number, Ma'a Nonu, and failed to take a gilt-edged opportunity in the left corner late on. Were Flood not needed elsewhere in the team, Hape probably wouldn't be in the side.
Mike Tindall (outside centre) Big and strong – how the England management love these qualities – but his passing let him down badly more than once. Tindall may have 64 caps to his name but New Zealand's debutant Sonny Bill Williams, equally powerful but far more blessed in the skills department, made much the greater impact on the match.
England's next fixtures
England v Australia
Saturday 20 Nov England v Samoa
Saturday 27 Nov England v South Africa