Could England beat New Zealand at Twickenham yesterday? It depended on whether you were a lifelong believer in Father Christmas. Throughout the first half, and in fact until the 57th minute, the dream survived. Alas, a simple twist of the screw in the final quarter took New Zealand comfortably clear and brought England back to reality.
There was much in the first half to commend Martin Johnson's side. They displayed a sense of urgency, spirit and commitment that they had not shown against Australia and Argentina. One was entitled to ask why that was. Alas, though, England were living on borrowed time. They had to make so many tackles that they were draining away their energy levels. It had to tell, and eventually it did.
Clear signs of that process began to appear as New Zealand got more bodies to the breakdown more quickly, especially after half-time. Together with the scrums, where England struggled, these were the phases that eventually influenced the game.
New Zealand were several levels below their best. They made simple errors and, initially at least, they got sucked into the sort of dogfight which England craved. There was a disturbing lack of composure and authority about the men in black, yet they still had enough tactical nous throughout the side and enough power up front to survive England's spirited yet ultimately flawed performance.
England showed much more dynamism from the start. Allied to that, the fact that New Zealand struggled for most of the first half to get properly into second gear and you get an indication of why the teams went into half-time level at 6-6. Even so, England needed to make 77 tackles in the first 40 minutes, a high number and one which would sap them later. Nevertheless, the tackle count was, for England's under-pressure coaching team, a welcome sign of effort and desire.
Going forward, few excelled more than the New Zealand centre Ma'a Nonu. There was a time, not that long ago, when Nonu was regarded as little more than a basher, a hulk only really able to carry the ball into contact. What a difference there is in his play these days. Nonu's subtlety, his intuitive ability to see space and an opening, and his skills in offloading and setting up colleagues made him a dangerous foe here. But for an uncharacteristically bad piece of handling and positioning by Dan Carter, he would have been instrumental in creating a first-half try.
At times, Carter looked like a golfer struggling to break 80. He seemed strangely hesitant at some key moments, he mishandled more than once and he missed two of four regulation penalty attempts in the first half alone. But players such as Carter and Richie McCaw are always likely to find a moment of inspiration. Eleven minutes after Carter's 46th-minute penalty had edged the All Blacks 9-6 ahead, McCaw applied the killer blow.
The All Black pack, who were increasingly superior, drove onwards in a relentless series of surges, reaching the England 22 before releasing the ball. It went down the blind side, where Sitiveni Sivivatu ran hard and straight and McCaw supported inside to make the spare man and free his scrum-half, Jimmy Cowan, for the game's only try. Carter converted from the touchline, and with a fourth penalty 10 minutes later the misfiring fly-half eased his team out of sight.
England had paid a price for their errors, but perhaps those mistakes should be attributed more to New Zealand's sustained pressure than any other factor. This was a better display by Johnson's men but it wasn't anywhere near enough.
When you catch the All Blacks on a pretty ordinary day, you really need to take advantage. England lacked neither the ambition nor the commitment to do that, but when it came down to it they didn't have the class or the ability to seize the victory they craved.