When Danny Grewcock bent down to pull the hair of All Black Andrew Ellis - and Daniel Carter promptly stepped up to plunder another three points so casually he might have been tossing a dart in his local bar back home in Christchurch - it was almost too painful to note the expression of the England head coach, Andy Robinson, and the man who now holds his fate in his hands, the director of rugby, Rob Andrew.
For one moment of absolute futility the future of English rugby was thrown into a nightmarish perspective. The question, a year before England are required to defend the title which might have been collected on another planet in another age rather than in Sydney three years ago, was inevitable as they slid to their sixth straight defeat: have world champions in any sport, in any circumstances, ever fallen quite so far quite so quickly? Historically, maybe you have to reach back to the Brazilian football team of 1970, who were peerless in Mexico City and then muscle-bound nonentities in Germany four years later. Perhaps what was so shocking at Twickenham, however, was that the majority of 82,000 fans seemed to be ambushed by the terrible reality that their heroes have tumbled so far from the level they achieved with such will and consummate professionalism when claiming the Webb Ellis Trophy. The old triumphalist sound of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", drowned out the haka - one modified to remove the controversial slash across the throat - and no doubt the old victory hymn was about to boom again before a mess was made in the adjudication of what appeared to be a perfectly legal try by the England centre Jamie Noon.
In some quarters of Twickenham last night there were murmurings that if the try had stood, and momentum been fuelled, England might just have avoided some of the more depressing aspects of their 41-20 defeat. It was a thought given some support by moments of creativity behind the scrum - and the fact that three tries were scored. But the reality was rather more sombre. This was a New Zealand team limbering up for the serious business of psychological warfare against the French over the next few weeks - and at times, the limbering, was by All Black standards, almost catastrophic in its nonchalance.
However, when reality arrived it came with utter savagery. The more promising an England attack, the more likely it seemed that the New Zealanders would find a comfortable riposte, and so it was most pointedly when in the second half the All Blacks lost their No 8 Chris Masoe to the sin-bin. Maybe it was the fact they were a man down that finally concentrated the minds of the team who must be rated the hardest of favourites to win only their second World Cup.
Earlier the wistful speculation about what might have happened if Noon had been allowed his touchdown had been put in a devastatingly harsh light by the sweep of New Zealand's most awe-inspiring moment, the try of prop Carl Hayman. It was the result of instinctive rugby which involved big men hunting in the most cohesive of packs. England were made to look as if they were playing a different and sharply inferior game.
It is a pattern which will take some mighty readjustment now. Andrew's bleak expression - and Robinson's anguish - were statements that permitted no area of misunderstanding. English rugby, saluted so emotionally in the streets of London in the wake of the Sydney triumph, has to do more than reanimate a team. It has to look at not only the current progress of the All Blacks but consider the weight of their tradition and the basis of their success. It speaks of a coherence of will, an acceptance that if the importance of a winning national team is accepted, there can be no place for the kind of civil war which for long bedevilled England's efforts to embrace the march of professionalism.
The New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, who made it clear that he was far from thrilled by the level of his team's proficiency here yesterday, has dictatorial powers. He can make his demands on club rugby not as one party in a war of priorities, but the upholder of a national yearning to produce the world's best team.
That the team who eviscerated the British and Irish Lions so profoundly last year have the potential to make that status official in France next year was only too grimly evident as England fought so desperately to relight the fire which burnt so fiercely so recently.
The flow of All Black rugby, at decisive moments, was quite irresistible. Carter did not have one of his more overwhelming games. He scored a mere 26 points, which was almost routine, but five of them came at extremely poignant cost to England in the brushing away of the challenge of the young hope Anthony Allen. Earlier, the boy who had been pitched against the most formidable of opposition, had thrown a guileless interception for another New Zealand try.
Later, Robinson grasped his hand and told him that there would be better days - both for him and English rugby. It was something that had to be said in the most painful of circumstances. It was a little therapy amid the smoke and the shell shock.
England man-for-man marking
* 15 IAIN BALSHAW
Played far better than his current form suggested. There was the occasional poor kick, but he was very positive. 7/10
* 14 PAUL SACKEY
He looked good on the ball and was threatening when in possession, but he looked underpowered in defence. 7
* 13 JAMIE NOON
There was one costly missed tackle on Rico Gear which led to Mauger's try, but the good far outweighed the bad and he reckoned he scored two tries. 7
* 12 ANTHONY ALLEN
His inexperience showed painfully but he looked assured at times, particularly in contact. There were a couple of bad errors which led to tries. 4
* 11 BEN COHEN
Improved as the game went on. He looked strong in possession and was not scared of the physicality. His positioning was sometimes flawed. 6
* 10 CHARLIE HODGSON
An off day with the goal kicking. He failed to impose himself against an outstanding opposite number in Daniel Carter. Some inventive distribution but not one of his best games. 4
* 9 SHAUN PERRY
Did not make the most confident of starts and early on looked hesitant at times at rucks and base of scrum, but grew in stature and was aggressive around the fringes. 7
* 1 ANDREW SHERIDAN
Played his part in a solid English scrimmaging performance and caught the eye in the heavy traffic with some characteristically aggressive ball-carrying. 7
* 2 GEORGE CHUTER
Accurate throwing in at the line-out, but he struggled to stack up physically in the loose and will not forget one meeting with Joe Rococoko for a long time. 6
* 3 JULIAN WHITE
He was highly effective in his natural habitat of the front row but was unable to offer the kind of support which earned opposite number Carl Hayman a first-half try. 6
* 4 DANNY GREWCOCK
Tremendous work-rate in the eye of the storm. Heavy tacking and ruthless rucking. Some great work on the opposition throws. 7
* 5 BEN KAY
He ran the line-out very well but too often found himself exposed in open field. Not in Chris Jack's class as a footballer. 5
* 6 MARTIN CORRY
Yet another of his magnificent performances in defeat. He could not conceivably have given more of himself to a cause that quickly became hopeless. 9
* 7 LEWIS MOODY
As energetic as ever. Terrific chasing the high ball and fearless in the tackle. Lost out to Richie McCaw, but then, who wouldn't? 7
* 8 PAT SANDERSON
A high work-rate and never less than brave, but not ideally suited to the No 8 role. England should use him on the flank. 5Reuse content