New Zealand 37 England 20: Johnson's men find All Blacks operating on different planet
Monday 16 June 2008
Only Martin Johnson knows if his family seat in rural Leicestershire is sufficiently far from New Zealand to spare him the worst of the trepidation felt by his England squad – yes, his England squad – as they contemplate a second meeting with the All Blacks in Christchurch this weekend. But if guilt by association still has any place in what little remains of professional sport's moral compass, he cannot simply shrug his shoulders in a "nothing to do with me, guv" kind of way. The new manager immersed himself in the preparations for this trip, despite his decision not to undertake it personally, and is therefore as accountable as anyone.
Like all those who find themselves answering to failure – and make no mistake, England's performance here in Auckland on Saturday was every bit as poor as those against Argentina at Twickenham in the autumn of 2006 and against Ireland at Croke Park a few months later, even if it did not quite plumb the depths of Murrayfield 2008 – he will demand immediate explanations of those paid to do his bidding. He will expect Graham Rowntree, the scrummaging coach, to offer some thoughts on a powder-puff set-piece effort that presented an insecure All Black pack with a foothold in the game, and be keen to hear the views of Mike Ford, the defence strategist, on tackling so reluctant that the perpetrators might have been mistaken for conscientious objectors.
And what happens when he has the relevant information at his fingertips, given that he is a 24-hour flight away from Christchurch, where a deflated England are now attempting to regroup ahead of a Test the All Blacks now expect to win by a minimum of 25 points? He must use it to give those here a clear idea of how to limit the damage from the storm heading their way. If it seems unfair to thrust such responsibility upon an individual whose managership does not formally begin for another fortnight, it is nowhere near as unjust as the Rugby Football Union's treatment of his predecessor, Brian Ashton. That this is the flavour of the moment is Twickenham's fault, and Twickenham's alone.
Perversely, the man who did the RFU management board's dirty work in the Ashton affair, Rob Andrew, will not be stained by this latest heavy English defeat in southern climes. He is acting head coach, admittedly, but the title means nothing, given that he no longer coaches for a living. From the start of next month, he will be out of his tracksuit and back into his business suit, overseeing the "bigger picture". The fine detail of England's place in the great scheme of things will be Johnson's to worry about, not his.
"Realistically, there is very little anyone can do to bring players on in the space of a two-match tour," Andrew said in the hours leading into this opening Test. My, how his charges proved him right. Many of the more experienced international hands in the starting line-up – Charlie Hodgson, Andrew Sheridan, Matt Stevens, the captain, Steve Borthwick – had difficult evenings, and it may well be that the first of that quartet has cooked his own goose as far as his Test career is concerned.
Hodgson was directly to blame for New Zealand's game-breaking third try – his open-handed flap at Ma'a Nonu was unlikely to interrupt the progress of the world's most direct centre as he set up a simple score for his full-back, Mils Muliaina, shortly after the interval – but his attacking work was also flawed, to the extent that he butchered a rare English overlap by throwing a "Barnes Wallis" pass straight along the floor.
As Andrew said when questioned about the decision to withdraw the Sale outside-half from the fray after less than 50 minutes: "You get found out in Test rugby – that's why it is called Test rugby – so the challenge is to find players who can handle every demand, who can cope with every aspect. We'll have to think very carefully about certain issues ahead of the Christ-church game." It does not look good for Hodgson, to say the very least.
Stevens frequently looks like the best tight-head prop in Europe, but he struggled to deal with the unusually substantial Neemia Tialata when the Aucklander went for the jugular at the early scrums. As a result, England's own kingpin scrummager, Sheridan, was neutralised. And Borthwick? The new captain played his usual intelligent hand in the line-out contest, which the tourists won hands down, but he committed grave handling errors in open field, one of which led to Sitiveni Sivivatu's 23rd try in as many international outings. Knowing Borthwick, he will beat himself up about it. Good. So he should.
Olly Barkley appeared to be in decent shape, if not as decent as anyone in the All Blacks' midfield, but should Andrew pick the kicker at outside-half for the second Test – and he must be sorely tempted, given Hodgson's travails – the important experiment of running him at inside centre will be put on hold yet again.
The most encouraging contribution came from the new back-row trio. They started with a hiss and a roar, turning over New Zealand possession from the kick-off and forcing the home captain, Richie McCaw, into a series of indiscretions. Even when the tide turned decisively in the second quarter, the Gloucester No 8, Luke Narraway, continued to work like a Trojan. England may just have found themselves an answer to one of the burning personnel problems in the spine of the side. If so, this trip will have had some value.
Topsy Ojo also had his moments – two of them, to be precise. The London Irish wing took his brace of debutant's tries superbly, outpacing Muliaina with remarkable ease after intercepting Daniel Carter's pass and then reacting more quickly than Sivivatu and Sione Lauaki to capitalise on Danny Care's speculative punt at the death. Had his fellow wing, David Strettle, been fully match-hardened after injury, England would have had three tries. Frustratingly, Strettle failed to finish in the left corner after a flurry of high-pressure passes from Borthwick, Barkley and Tom Rees.
Yet for all this, it would have been a travesty had the tourists finished within one of the All Black try count, for they could easily have lost by 30 points or more. They were not in the same class as their hosts outside the scrum – England's backs simply cannot offer the optimum mix of footballing creativity and physical presence common to the likes of Sivivatu, Muliaina and the brilliant centre Conrad Smith – and not as good as them in the scrum, either.
In theory, England were plenty strong enough to make a real 12-rounder of it. In practice, certain among their number would have struggled to go two rounds with a revolving door.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Waikato); A Tuitavake (North Harbour), C Smith (Wellington), M Nonu (Wellington), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), A Ellis (Canterbury); N Tialata (Wellington), A Hore (Taranaki), G Somerville (Canterbury), B Thorn (Tasman), A Williams (Tasman), R So'oialo (Wellington), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), J Kaino (Auckland). Replacements: K Mealamu (Auckland) for Hore, 6-8 & 46; L MacDonald (Canterbury) for Muliaina, 52; A Boric (North Harbour) for Thorn, 52; S Lauaki (Waikato) for Kaino, 53; J Cowan (Southland) for Ellis, 60; S Donald (Waikato) for Carter, 73.
England: M Brown (Harlequins); T Ojo (London Irish), M Tindall (Gloucester), O Barkley (Bath), D Strettle (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), R Wigglesworth (Sale); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), T Palmer (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath, capt), J Haskell (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), L Narraway (Gloucester). Replacements: J Noon (Newcastle) for Hodgson, 49; B Kay (Leicester) for Palmer, 53; D Care (Harlequins) for Wigglesworth, 63; J Worsley (Wasps) for Haskell, 63; T Payne (Wasps) for Sheridan, 65; D Paice (London Irish) for Mears, 80.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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