During the second half of a match with a wholly predictable outcome, gold-edged clouds lit by the setting sun appeared behind Twickenham's west stand, like something from The Greatest Story Ever Told. The story on the pitch replicated what New Zealand have done to England in recent years, and though there were just enough thrusts and busts by the home side, particularly in a fractious final quarter to draw an approving reaction from the crowd, there was never any danger of the world's No 1 team falling to the one ranked in sixth place.
Take your pick from the fundamentals in which New Zealand excelled – the pace and beauty of their attacking patterns; their scoring two tries to one; the precision of their handling (save the odd comedy pass from Joe Rokocoko, chucked neck-high at Sonny Bill Williams, the gigantic centre debutant of basketball proportions who sometimes played that game too); and the necessary pressure applied to force forward passes and knock-ons.
Scrum put-ins would have been high on England's wish list but the All Blacks had the first six. New Zealand, a week on from a narrow defeat by Australia in Hong Kong, were quicker into their stride than Lewis Moody's side. As Martin Johnson, the England manager, put it: "We just had too many errors. The dressing room's pleased with the comeback but I think they know we want to be better than that."
It was right for Johnson to be as thin on excuses as the dividing line at the breakdown which, with Richie McCaw prowling for New Zealand, proved less controversial than expected. England could not blame tiredness – they had, with the exception of the captain, Moody, prepared with a fortnight's rest – or injuries. Only the borderline first choices Simon Shaw, Riki Flutey and Jonny Wilkinson were missing, unlike the ravages of this fixture 12 months ago; just two Englishmen, Moody and Mark Cueto, started both matches. Five players were starting at Twickenham for the first time, though they had all shared in the defeat of Australia last time out. Of these, Chris Ahston on the wing and Courtney Lawes in the second row would have cause to be most satisfied last night.
The test of England's mettle was rigorous and rapid when New Zealand scored tries in the 17th and 21st minutes for a 14-point lead. Mils Muliaina and Hosea Gear had shown their threat down the left before a line-out off the top from Sam Whitelock allowed Williams, fending off a double tackle, and Jerome Kaino to feed Gear on the left. A tackle by Chris Ashton was not enough to stop Gear flipping over for the score. Dan Carter had shanked a penalty wide but New Zealand's leading scorer converted the try and did not miss thereafter.
England's defence coach, Mike Ford, had called for "proper Test rugby". His side were split almost as easily for New Zealand's second. From a scrum in the England 22, Kieran Read at No 8 combined with his scrum-half, Alby Mathewson, and Gear and followed up with a punishing hand-off of Ben Youngs. Carter converted. Youngs at scrum-half and Lawes at lock strained to show they belonged at this level. A penalty by Wilkinson's youngish successor at fly-half, Toby Flood, got England's first points after 24 minutes but it was not long before Carter replied from 40 metres and that was how it went; any time England did something good, the New Zealanders responded. It did not help when, just before half-time, Moody found himself in space only for Mike Tindall, who had an afternoon to forget, to fluff the outside pass.
Nick Easter lost his bearings on the touchline twice but grew in influence. England began to get the better of Romain Poite's verdicts in the scrum – "We need to win an award for scrummaging to get anything," McCaw moaned to the French referee – and another Flood-Carter penalty swap had the All Blacks 20-6 up before England's try came in the 54th minute.
Ashton started it by calling a mark and haring off with Tindall and Ben Foden in support. Flood took over near halfway and kicked; Ashton chased and held off a scrambling lunge by Read to set up a ruck from which Flood fed Dylan Hartley, not long on as a replacement, at full pelt. This is Hartley's trademark, even if it had not been enough to get him a start ahead of Steve Thompson. The video official ruled Hartley had placed the ball to score fairly as he crashed to the deck a metre short.
With Flood's conversion England were within seven. Soon enough, Carter kicked a penalty for 23-13, but with a ninth successive win over England looming, and a 21st straight win on their European tours, the All Blacks let their standards slip. A tug on Cueto by Carter and Kaino's side entry gave Flood a third penalty. Hartley piled into McCaw on the floor and took a forearm smash from Brad Thorn. The England captaincy passed to Tindall when Moody was substituted. Delon Armitage's first act from the bench was a high tackle on Isaia Toeava which allowed Carter to kick again. Kaino saw yellow for not releasing.
England showed a semblance of New Zealand-style offloading. Their converted Kiwi, Shontayne Hape, came to the fore but he was denied a try by laboured passing and Toeava's tackle. A deflected pass by Andy Ellis made Carter hurry and a 22 drop-out by the fly-half went into touch. Still, New Zealand stayed clear. Somehow, they were always going to.
Man for man: England
Ben Foden 6/10
Took a thumping great bell-ringer from Franks but kept his wits about him and showed glimpses of them in open play. Held up to end the first 40.
Mark Cueto 6/10
Solid in general play, as usual. Doesn't really have the pace of an All Black back, though.
Mike Tindall 6/10
"My country, right or wrong", as usual, but here it was the other country, right and particularly left, that caused him problems in defence. Took over the captaincy when Moody went off.
Shontayne Hape 6/10
England's former New Zealand league player looked less effective than New Zealand's former New Zealand league player, Williams. Better in the second half; couldn't quite score a try.
Chris Ashton 7/10
Made a good cover tackle on Gear, who was awarded a try nonetheless. Then a great take, mark, break and chase (from way offside) for the Hartley try.
Toby Flood 6/10
Reasonable, but a miss from pretty much straight in front in the first half was three points thrown away.
Ben Youngs 6/10
Sharp under close attention. Will keep the No 9 shirt, despite being replaced when the game was still on.
Andrew Sheridan 7/10
Would have been nice to know which swearword the loosehead chose to use when he extracted his first scrum penalty out of Franks. Looked to be a fairly forceful one. Fairly forceful himself, of course, and the All Black pack will be bloody glad to see the back of the big bugger.
Steve Thompson 6/10
Line-outs weren't perfect. Roared around the field, as usual; went off with half an hour to go.
Dan Cole 7/10
Followed Sheridan by taking a scrum penalty from Woodcock and then carried on taking them for the whole game, by the end of which he was even popping up in the back line. Strong.
Courtney Lawes 6/10
Played the whole 80, a compliment from the management, and smashed about to generally pleasing effect. In some indeterminable way, it seems that he might still be a bit overawed. If so, it should stop with time in the team.
Tom Palmer 6/10
Had a nosebleed, which at least gave his shirt some red to cancel out that horrible 2B-graphite pencil wash, or whatever the grey bits on the new kit are called. Off with 20 to go.
Tom Croft 6/10
Not the person you'd have expected to knock on close in with 10 minutes to go and an All Black flanker in the bin. Best option at the line-out, as usual, and generally strong around the field.
Lewis Moody 6/10
Still doesn't seem to feel pain like a mortal. Picked himself up and carried on time and again, even after a hideous knock, flush in the swede, from an exocet called Mealamu.
Nick Easter 6/10
Seemed a bit sluggish to start with but late on he found a higher gear. Got to Carter, and smashed him, once – by being about five miles offside.
Dylan Hartley kept up with Ashton to plant the ball over the line. Seemed like a double movement. Apparently wasn't. May be in trouble for a forearm smash on McCaw.
David Wilson on for Sheridan and the scrum penalties kept coming.
Dave Attwood for Palmer
Hendre Fourie on for Moody – two first caps.
Dylan Armitage on for Cueto. Gave away the penalty for 26-16.
Danny Care on at No 9 for 10 minutes.
Man for man: New Zealand
Mils Muliaina 6/10
An All Black's version of a rather anonymous game, meaning that, some slightly unconvincing kicking apart, he merely looked threatening for most of the match.
Joe Rokocoko 5/10
An All Black's version of an actual bad game, meaning that he knocked on a lot and threw out bad passes and generally seemed out of sorts. And yet he still seemed more dangerous than any England back. Go figure.
Sonny Bill Williams 7/10
Pretty good – his offload for the first try was precisely the kind of thing England would have expected him to do. Made another great break and offload in the second half that, oddly, led to England's try. Not his fault.
Ma'a Nonu 6/10
Not quite sure how he didn't score, or help to set up, about nine tries down the left-hand channel. An industrious afternoon.
Hosea Gear 7/10
Took his try well – not his fault if his foot was out when he touched the ball down, which it might well have been.
Dan Carter 7/10
Shanked his first penalty, which was something to tell the grandkids about. Kicked well otherwise. Was penalised for pulling Cueto off the ball to stop a dangerous-ish attack. Call that "clever" if you're a Kiwi, "cynical" if you're English.
Alby Mathewson 5/10
Penalised for feeding at the first scrum of the second half. Not something you see too often. Didn't have the best of first Test starts and was off on the hour.
Tony Woodcock 5/10
Had a very tough time against Cole, who forced him to lose his binding for the penalty (the third conceded by the Kiwi) which made it 17-6. His team won, but the scrums were pretty bloody.
Keven Mealamu 5/10
Clashed heads with Moody at a ruck – which may or may not interest the citing officer when he has a butcher's at the video. Part of a beaten front row.
Owen Franks 6/10
Walloped Foden in open play – not bad for a prop and not as bad as the crowd thought, either; he used his hands and didn't go high. Didn't have much fun against Sheridan, though.
BRAD THORN 6/10
One of those forwards who "straightens up the line" when he gets his hands on the ball. Which actually means "runs smack into the nearest opponent". Big enough to do that very well, of course, but not the biggest line-out presence.
Sam Whitelock 7/10
Had a good game, all round, including a line-out nick or two. Looks and plays a bit like a streamlined Danny Grewcock – which is a compliment, honest.
Jerome Kaino 6/10
The All Black flanker who does get shown yellow cards. Gave away the penalty for 23-16, at a ruck, leading to a ruck of the other, less seemly kind between Thorn and Hartley. A subsequent infringement meant he spent the last 10 minutes in the bin.
Richie McCaw 7/10
Gave away the first penalty for being a long way on the wrong side of an England ruck. Plus ça change. Got away with a lot more. Plus ça change. Not the captain's most spectacular performance, but still, naturally, chillingly effective.
Kieran Read 7/10
Scored a good try, driving low and hard which, as every skuleboy kno, is a pretty basic rugby skill. That was off a retreating scrum, so it summed up the No 8's achievements rather well.
Andy Ellis on at No 9; bit ropey under pressure.
Isaia Toeava took a high hit from Armitage; "look, no hands" tackle saved a Hape try.
Anthony Boric on for Whitelock.
John Afoa on for Franks for five minutes of pain and penalties.