Fresh-faced England hint at brighter future for Johnson

England 16 New Zealand 26: Foden, Youngs and Ashton impress as tyros mount late fightback to lift World Cup hopes

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

Saturday England v Australia
Saturday 20 Nov England v Samoa
Saturday 27 Nov England v South Africa

News
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
people
News
people
News
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
news
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May