England have been on the painful end of heavier pastings in the Land of the Long White Shroud, but few can have been quite so dispiriting as this. The strongest red-rose party to travel south since the golden year of 2003 finished 17 points shy of the All Blacks in Auckland yesterday, but could not have complained if the losing margin had been 27 points or even 37. Indisciplined and error-ridden, they did everything in their power to make New Zealanders feel good about their rugby once again. The rest of the world will not thank them for it.
The home side scored four tries and 34 points in 21 minutes either side of the interval. Had England not started the game as well as they did, and not regrouped sufficiently to turn the final half-hour into something resembling a dog's dinner, there would have been real carnage. Indeed, the tourists' dignity would have been shredded but for a runaway try by Topsy Ojo, the debutant wing from London Irish, who took a bold punt on intercepting Daniel Carter's scoring pass to Conrad Smith and hit the jackpot. Another All Black try then would have resulted in annihilation.
"It's pretty embarrassing, sitting here as defence coach having seen us concede the tries we did," admitted Mike Ford, one of England's senior back-room staff. "We went through the whole Six Nations without being busted in those areas but we were ripped apart out there. Our set-piece defence was dreadful."
Rob Andrew, the caretaker manager-cum-coach in the absence of the newly appointed Martin Johnson, put a more positive slant on proceedings, but bemoaned the "easy possession and easy points" given to the very opponents best equipped to exploit such largesse.
Everyone knew England would struggle to hold the Carters, the Smiths, the Ma'a Nonus and the Sitiveni Sivivatus if these brilliant attacking runners were given a chance to play on the front foot, so the tourists' chances hinged on the performance of their tight forwards. With Andrew Sheridan and Matt Stevens in thepropping positions and Steve Borthwick, the best line-out organiser in Europe, in the second row, there were realistic hopes that the set-pieces would go the way of white, not black. Borthwick duly had the better of the line-out contest – New Zealand lost five of their own throws – but the scrummaging was gruesomely bad. Far from being pressured in the arm-wrestling department, Neemia Tialata had himself a field day.
Once the New Zealanders sorted themselves out at the breakdown – the English back-rowers were exceptional early on, with the Gloucester No 8 Luke Narraway showing up particularly strongly – their attacking tempo made the game far too hot for the English to handle. Behind to the odd penalty in three, they attacked Tom Palmer and Lee Mears from a restart and freed Carter in a dangerous area to the left of the posts. The outside-half slipped a kick in behind Charlie Hodgson and when Mike Tindall failed to tidy up the mess, Smith was on hand to complete a straightforward score.
Carter kicked a penalty when Narraway was penalised for handling in a ruck, and the All Blacks then hit the 20-point mark when Sivivatu drifted off his wing to create the hole for his No 10 to score another five points, which he duly turned into seven with the conversion. Carter then kicked his side into a 23-6 lead, and when spectacular handling unleashed Brad Thorn on an upfield rampage, it seemed for all the world that the silver-ferned hordes would hit 30 before the break.
Instead, Ojo stretched out his arms in desperation, plucked the ball from underneath Smith's nose and outpaced Mils Muliaina on an 80-metre gallop up the right touchline.
If England were relieved, they had good reason to be. Sadly for them, that relief evaporated within two minutes of retaking the field after the half-time powwow. Nonu, all tattooed muscle and attitude, smashed through the overmatched Hodgson, who had another of his rough nights on the barricades, to create a depressingly simple try for Muliaina. Four minutes later and the centre performed a similar service for Sivivatu after Ojo's defensive bearings disappeared into the southern night skyand the prospect of a 50-point shellacking was at the forefront of English minds.
As it turned out, the energetic Narraway led something of a resurgence, albeit against opponents weakened by a flurry of substitutions. Tireless in the tackle and never less than courageous on the floor, he carried the ball strongly and did his level best to give his side occasional flashes of continuity. He, at least, can hold his head high.
So too can Ojo, despite some errors appropriate to his level of experience. When Danny Care, who came on at scrum-half to win his first cap, poked a kick down the right, the ultra-rapid wing doubled his tally with a smart finish amid All Black confusion. From an English perspective, it put a shine on the scoreline. From an objective perspective, however, it was impossible not to recall that old line about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.
Man for man marking, by Martin Pengelly
7 Mils Muliaina Looked like he would catch Topsy Ojo for the first try – maybe it was the dodgy hamstring, maybe Ojo was too quick. Strolled in for a try of his own later.
7 Anthony Tuitavake A sevens-reared Rico Gear-a-like, so what are the chances he scores a few tries in a few Tests and then ends up chasing kicks at Worcester?
8 Conrad Smith 'Snake' slithered across for the first try, from Dan Carter's kick. Clever, which isn't just a way of saying he's a bit littler than the guy inside him...
7 Ma'a Nonu ... who is, it's fair to say, a hefty unit. Smithereened Charlie Hodgson's Test career when setting up Muliaina's try. Some Kiwis rate him very highly indeed.
7 Sitiveni Sivivatu New Zealand's much-lamented player drain can't be too bad if chaps like this can be plucked fresh off the vine in Fiji. Tests: 23. Tries: 23. Reasonable.
8 Dan Carter Much more like it. Kicked Olly Barkley off the pitch, ran and passed Hodgson out of the stadium. Seven from seven, a lovely try, various 'assists'. Too good.
7 Andy Ellis There is something irritating about a scrum-half in a headband; then again, there is supposed to be something irritating about any good scrum-half. Check.
7 Neemia Tialata Decent effort in the scrums, against Matt Stevens, but will share the blame for the line-out problems. Like Muliaina, burned by Ojo. He, though, is a prop.
5 Andrew Hore As Ellis is Justin Marshall's Mini Me (and so is Jimmy Cowan, oddly), Hore is a new Anton Oliver, complete with ropey throwing. A future Oxford Blue, then?
7 Greg Somerville Also good in the scrums, in his case against Andrew Sheridan. Got the nudge, for example, in the set-piece from which Ellis and Sivivatu put Carter over.
5 Brad Thorn Big league-bred bludger bludgeoned right through Lee Mears and made a good break before Ojo's interception. Not, however, a line-out specialist.
5 Ali Williams His dad's English, you know. But then, they wouldn't take him on this display. Line-out blame will be shared, but it's his beat and it was pretty unruly.
6 Rodney So'oialo Less visible at No 6 but good enough, naturally. The sight of him swatting off Mears as if the midget hooker was a persistent midge raised a grim smile.
7 Richie McCaw Practically a royal presence, which might explain why Nigel Owens didn't bin him for ball-killing in the first half. He'd have had the uppity little blighter shot.
7 Jerome Kaino Made a wonderful tackle to stop David Strettle scoring. IRB junior player of the year in 2004. If that player drain means he finally gets a game, so be it.
5 Keven Mealamu On for Hore. Equally dodgy at the line-outs.
5 Anthony Boric On for Thorn. Equally dodgy at the line-outs.
5 Sione Lauaki Frightening slab of Tongan came on for Kaino.
5 Jimmy Cowan On for Ellis to be absolutely sconned by Ben Kay.
5 Stephen Donald On late for Carter, who deserved a rest.
5 Leon MacDonald On for Muliaina. Some substitute.
6 Mike Brown Full-backs, up north at least, tend to be small and quick or big and slow. Brown is on the slight side and not too light on his feet. Hmmm. Kicked well enough.
7 Topsy Ojo Chased kicks and got walloped, then took his chances very well. His Test strike rate is, if you think about it, better than Sivivatu's. Malleable things, statistics.
6 Mike Tindall Enough percussion to shift his nose a few more inches round his battered phizog: 20 more Tests and it might be straight again. Shown a yellow card late on.
6 Olly Barkley Kicking was off-beam. Tried to spark something every time he had the ball, once at No 10, but usually got an All Black or two in the mush for his trouble.
6 David Strettle Denied a try by Kaino; perhaps an audible Lancastrian swearword tipped off the referee that he hadn't touched down. Quickly quashed thereafter.
5 Charlie Hodgson Bad pass led to Carter making it 13-6, and as for the miss on Nonu for 30-13... the less said here, the better. Others will discuss it in full. The selectors, say.
6 Richard Wigglesworth Service seemed slightly laboured, putting his fly-half under pressure. A couple of good box kicks got his side, aptly enough, off the ropes.
6 Andrew Sheridan Couldn't make Somerville bend the knee, never mind buckle completely. Took his yellow card and lost a chunk out of his cheek with bear-faced stoicism.
6 Lee Mears Much better time of it in the line-outs than either Kiwi opponent, but that battering from Thorn hinted at the Bath man's natural limits. He's a little bit... little.
6 Matt Stevens Right at the heart of it in the first 20 minutes, but usually there or thereabouts when things went wrong thereafter. At least the Kiwis know who he is now.
6 Tom Palmer Some excellent line-out steals – when the All Black hookers didn't do his job for him by not throwing straight. One costly kick-off cock-up, sadly.
6 Steve Borthwick A captain in the Martin Johnson mould, but would old Beetle Brows allow such a mid-match collapse? No. Still, the line-out nerd in him will be happy.
6 James Haskell Never backwards in coming forward off the pitch; ditto for the first 20 on it here. In the middle 20, though, he and all others were forever going back.
7 Tom Rees Stole ball, fought hard with the real McCaw. Those who parrot the line that he's too small may have half a point, but he's a hell of a worker. Excellent.
7 Luke Narraway A little like Kaino in that he isn't, quite yet, a No 8 to subject an entire match to his own will. Few are, of course. Book him a chat with Deano, Zinzan or Dallaglio.
5 David Paice First cap in place of Mears, with the game long gone.
5 Tim Payne On for Sheridan for another cap in a summer defeat.
5 Ben Kay On for Palmer to make his presence felt. Ask Cowan.
5 Joe Worsley On for Haskell but no chance to change anything.
6 Danny Care On for Wigglesworth. Very sharp – set up Ojo's second.
5 Jamie Noon On for Hodgson. A headcase for a basket case?