There was an illuminating moment on the eve of England's eighth consecutive defeat at the hands of the All Blacks. Asked to explain why he had left some of his most creative attacking spirits – Shane Geraghty, Mathew Tait, Tom Croft – on the replacements' bench, Martin Johnson furrowed his brow, sighed wearily and muttered "Ah, that word 'creativity' again", as though he did not consider it a real word at all: that it was pure make-believe, conjured out of thin air by Tolkien or Lewis Carroll and no more meaningful than Gollum or "Jabberwocky".
Twenty-four hours later, 82,000-plus spectators at Twickenham were begging to differ. Some of the rugby played in challenging weather by Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Daniel Carter – yes, even by the arch-battering ram Ma'a Nonu, who looked like Mike Gibson incarnate when compared with some of the English backs – was wondrous to behold, and it was the product of the creative impulse. Creative as in imaginative, ingenious, inspired, inventive. In the world of the All Blacks, creativity is the only reality.
This explains why Tait received something approaching an ovation when he finally took the field five minutes before the end of normal time. It was not that the crowd expected him to win the game: the moment Sivivatu combined with Richie McCaw to manufacture a 58th-minute try for Jimmy Cowan, the contest was in "dead parrot" territory. It was because they felt Tait was at least capable of attempting something out of the ordinary.
It was entirely predictable that the manager would spend the hours following another barren display against a major southern hemisphere power – England have not put a try past one of the big three since Nick Easter romped in from three centimetres against the Wallabies four and a half matches ago – praising his players for their commitment. There were indeed some joules of energy up front, where Steve Borthwick produced a captain's performance and Croft's back-row partnership with Lewis Moody and James Haskell, reconvened as a consequence of Joe Worsley's injury, paid dividends. But the tourists solved these problems, serene in the knowledge that England did not have the first understanding of how to score.
Of course, the New Zealanders themselves understood all too well. That they crossed the English line only once was due to their own profligacy – a fault common to the displays of Zac Guildford, the newcomer on the wing, and Conrad Smith, the outside centre who had beaten Johnson's team on his own 12 months previously. Guildford could be forgiven for butchering two scoring opportunities: he may be blessed with a God-given talent, but he is still a kid. Smith's performance was more puzzling, a mess of slipshod sloppiness.
Under the circumstances, the departing words of the New Zealand coach, Wayne Smith, were profoundly disconcerting. "Actually, I thought England played their best rugby for a while," he said. "They didn't just try to bludgeon us: we were certain their players would be given some licence and they tried to do things with ball in hand. Still, we knew where we were at. We had a good half-time talk and agreed to hit it up the guts a bit more. One more try from us would really have opened the game."
In other words, England raised their standards in levelling conditions against a New Zealand side comparatively weak at the sharp end and still finished a distant second. They failed to take much out of the inexperienced All Black tight-head prop Owen Franks, and while Borthwick prospered at the line-out, McCaw's work in the loose was sufficiently clever to neutralise the best of Moody and Croft. And outside? If Mark Cueto's successful switch from wing to full-back was the highlight, the home side had nothing to set against Muliaina's footwork or Sivivatu's chilling combination of pace and power.
It was the Fijian-born wing who created the try, cleverly drawing Paul Hodgson and the outclassed Matt Banahan to free McCaw and, ultimately, Cowan, who until then had suffered a rough afternoon. Other opportunities fell to Muliaina – who slid a foot into touch at the flag under pressure from the elephant-lunged Croft and the reinvigorated Ugo Monye – and to Guildford, who would certainly have scored from Carter's perfect diagonal punt but for Cueto's fingertip tackle.
When the All Blacks were in possession, the Twickenham pitch seemed twice its normal size. When England had the ball, which was often, there was a postage-stamp look to it. The only time the home side seriously threatened was when Steve Thompson, the replacement hooker, worked a front-of-the-line move with the excellent Simon Shaw and trundled towards the right corner. He was hauled down a few metres short by Carter, who then made a second try-saving tackle on Duncan Bell.
And so it was that the Twickenham crowd slouched off home, having seen little to tickle their fancy apart from a comical scrap between Thompson and Adam Thomson – an incident straight from the pages of Tintin. This seemed entirely appropriate, given the England management's protestations of progress would not have looked out of place in a comic book. Next up? Wales in the Six Nations. Aaarrrggghhh!
England: M Cueto (Sale); M Banahan (Bath), D Hipkiss (Leicester), A Erinle (Biarritz), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), P Hodgson (London Irish); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Bell (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), J Haskell (Stade Français). Replacements: T Croft (Leicester) for Worsley, 2; S Thompson (Brive) for Hartley, 49; D Wilson (Bath) for Bell, 56; S Geraghty (Northampton) for Erinle, 64; L Deacon (Leicester) for Shaw, 66; Bell for Payne, 67; 19 T Croft (Leicester); D Care (Harlequins) for Hodgson, 73; M Tait (Sale) for Banahan, 75.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Waikato); Z Guildford (Hawke's Bay), C Smith (Wellington), M Nonu (Wellington), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), J Cowan (Southland); A Woodcock (North Harbour), A Hore (Taranaki), O Franks (Canterbury), B Thorn (Canterbury), T Donnelly (Otago), A Thomson (Otago), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), K Read (Canterbury). Replacements: J Afoa (Auckland) for Franks, 58; A Boric (North Harbour) for Donnelly, 58; J Kaino (Auckland) for Thomson, 58; A Ellis (Canterbury) for Cowan, 74.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
Stand out or stand down? England's audit
Paris has been good for him. Deep in the doldrums during his final months at Wasps, Haskell has rediscovered the best of himself since moving to Stade Français. He may not be a connoisseur's choice at No 8, but at least he threatens the opposition.
The London Irish scrum-half may not be extravagantly gifted, but his game-management instinct ensures the right options are taken more often than not. As he is also defensively astute, à la Kyran Bracken, he deserves another run.
Size matters, but skill matters more. Ask Shane Williams. If Banahan has plenty to offer in the weights and measures calculation, there is little going on up top – or, indeed, down there in the footwork department. Not yet good enough, if truth be told.
The Leicester-based coaching team admire his work rate, but Deacon did little to mark himself out as anything more than an honest toiler. No one questions his endeavour or his physical resilience, but Test rugby requires something other.Reuse content