James Lawton: Champions pale beside the new Black arts

New Zealand knew they were superior in every aspect of the game
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The Independent Online

Muhammad Ali once said that an opponent had dreamt he had beaten him but was decent enough to leap out of bed and apologise. You had a little sense of the need for that when the response of a few of the headquarters' faithful to Martin Corry's touchdown from a splendidly orchestrated third-minute running maul by England was to burst into a few bars of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".

No apology was forthcoming but long periods of subsequent silence acknowledged that a revived England machine was not exactly leaving its tracks on some bunch of no-hopers from the wrong side of Offa's Dike or Hadrian's Wall.

To be perfectly fair, England did look a bit more like the old lot who won the World Cup. They had formidable power at the front, though nothing to match the brilliant scrummaging of Carl Hayman, even when the All Blacks were required, through their own fault, to operate with a seven-man pack for most of the second half.

At outside-half England also had someone in Charlie Hodgson thoroughly deserving the respect from the stands which has, thankfully, removed the idea that when he replaced Jonny Wilkinson he was guilty of some kind of impertinence, if not fraud.

Worryingly, though, Hodgson is more than an authentic alternative to the physically inconvenienced golden boy. He is the one chink of creativity currently possessed by a team who for some time are likely to carry the mantle of world champions as a burden rather than an honour. Meanwhile, New Zealand are somewhat more than the hot favourites to succeed them in France in two years' time. They are the light of the rugby world, give or take a few dark practices in what they hope is the blindspot of a referee.

All Black cynicism - we should be realistic about this - was the great self-inflicted wound that made their 23-19 victory artificially close. It was a fine game, full of sinew and heart and flashes of brilliance behind the New Zealand scrum and line-out, but there was no question it lacked one vital element. Deep down you surely knew it permitted the possibility of only one winner.

This should not unduly depress coach Andy Robinson and his boys. As they say in America, you can't make chicken salad without the key ingredient and what England had they undoubtedly made the most of, and in a way that will bring familiar shivers to all their Six Nations rivals except, perhaps, France.

It should be a different story at the big-money Rugby Football Union, however. Instead of conducting civil war with the clubs, it might give a little time to the fact that, despite a vast playing population, and budget, England once again are threatened with being cut adrift from the thrust of the game in the southern hemisphere.

Certainly it is impossible at the moment even to dream of the kind of talent which Daniel Carter has brought to the international game. Here he did not begin to match the authority, even fantasy of the game which overwhelmed the Lions in Wellington a few months ago, but this was partly to England's credit. Unlike the hapless Lions, they placed his challenge into a properly competitive context. However, even though he did not illuminate the sky over south-west London, he still operated in a class utterly his own.

Sir Clive Woodward and his predecessor Jack Rowell from time to time talked of producing "total rugby". Rowell even suggested he was taking lessons from America's National Basketball Association. Nearly a decade on, there was no hint of Michael Jordan's facility, at least not from England. New Zealand unfurled their all-running, all-passing, all-thinking game with devastating effect and we saw a huge chasm between the teams.

The long-term message is surely clear enough: a new wind has blown through the greatest rugby force the world has even known. In New Zealand they have toughened competition and liberated their game, a tricky operation at any time. The All Blacks understand that between domestic and international competition adjustments have to be made, and the co-operation between clubs and country has resulted in a startling profusion of emerging talent in all areas. Startling, at least, to an England who fancied that World Cup victory in Sydney two years ago represented a change in the world order as much as a glorious one-off triumph.

Reality gives another story. The battle lines - and formations - have changed yet again, but what do England have? The same old iron-ribbed power and fortitude. The All Black coach, Graham Henry, was understandably grateful for this, however. After the flimsiness of opposition from the Lions, injury-ravaged Wales and Ireland, his team found themselves in a corner and were obliged to fight their way out of it. Henry suggested this was a rite of passage vital on the march to what would be only a second World Cup triumph for the nation which not so much embraced as inhaled the game so long ago.

If Henry is right, if this was indeed a Test match that truly tested the resolve and the range of the world's best rugby team, Robinson cannot be challenged when he speaks of new stirrings and an old self-belief in his own camp.

What cannot be avoided, however, is that bottom-line message of New Zealand's penultimate stride in their pursuit of a second Grand Slam of these islands. The All Blacks played a superior game. At one brief point, reduced to 13 men, they never faltered in their assumption that they would win. Why? Because they knew they were superior in every aspect of the game. Their resources, mentally and physically, ran deeper. Their concept of how rugby should be played was on another level.

The result was passages of play, however spasmodic, that made you understand the greatest glory of the game: movement and invention and the sheer exhilaration of carrying the ball in unanticipated directions.

One headline said, "England's bloodied heroes," another, below a picture of Carter eluding the fingertips of Corry, announced, "So near, so fast." That was a clever line but a mere glance might have spoilt it. You might have fancied you had read "So near, but so far." That, anyway, is the version England's rulers need to ponder today.

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