New Zealand 44 England 12 : Question of attitude the latest poser for England
Does it hurt enough? Defeat, that is. Rugby in New Zealand is always cruel to the body. As the last rites were being read over the dying English season on Saturday night, appropriately by a team dressed in black, a whole clutch of players, from Mathew Tait and Toby Flood to Olly Barkley and Luke Narraway, were being stitched up, or having shoulder joints restored to their proper positions, or having hamstrings and ankles unmangled. It's a hard game, rugby union, and the rugby down here in the wintry South Island is harder than anywhere else.
But what about the deeper pain to mind and spirit that surely must be felt when England ship the best part of 50 points to opponents operating so far below their customary level that the local aficionados fear the arrival of the Springboks, the reigning world champions, for two Tri-Nations matches next month? Does it register on the collective red rose consciousness as it should? Apparently not. In the early hours of yesterday morning, a significant proportion of the tourists congregated in their hotel bar for a few cheery beers before heading off out for a few more.
It was, on the face of it, a happy scene: much handshaking and backslapping and laughter amongst a group of sportsmen who had just survived the last knockings – literal ones as well as metaphorical – of an 11-month campaign and had done their best in coming up short against superior opponents. Yet something jarred with those witnessing these events, not simply because of their acute awareness of the desperate consequences of England's previous night out in Auckland, but because they could not help wondering if the All Blacks would have behaved similarly in defeat.
Would they have thrown on their jeans and T-shirts and disappeared into the night, or gone for the sackcloth and ashes option? Most of us know the answer to that one. Rob Andrew, presumably on his one and only tour as acting team manager-cum-coach and presumably relieved at the thought, refused to accept that the attitude of some tourists to their work might legitimately be questioned, but at least one senior player felt the need to make his feelings known on the issue, both to Andrew and to the manager-in-waiting, Martin Johnson, who kept in close touch with proceedings by phone while watching the two-Test series from his home in Leicestershire.
The fact that the All Blacks have lost only 11 South Island Tests in more than a century of rugby – that no British Isles team apart from the Lions themselves have ever won in Christchurch or Dunedin – cannot be attributed solely to a gulf in skill, in talent, in tactical awareness, in physicality. The New Zealanders are bloody good at this sport, but they are not supermen. They win not because they want to – everyone wants to win – but because they feel they need to. They are the products of their history, their environment, and their fidelity to both. On the available evidence, gathered since the World Cup victory in 2003, England's players are not cut from the same cloth.
Yes, the tourists gave whatever was left of themselves in pursuit of a victory they knew to be unachievable. Tait played with wit and imagination at full-back before finishing a distant second in a fearsome clash of heads with the new All Black centre Richard Kahui, and if Johnson fails to pick the best attacking runner in English rugby for the entire autumn series in November, he will have some explaining to do.
Danny Care's performance on his first Test start was scatterbrained and inspired in equal measure; Tim Payne struck a blow for the honest toilers with a fine performance at the set-piece; Tom Palmer contributed strongly at lock; the back row was a success for the second week running, with the energetic Narraway taking another big step towards cementing his place in the problem position of No 8.
Yet five tries were conceded to a side who lost their two best forwards to injury well before the interval, who were openly experimenting with their back line, who fumbled more possession in 80 minutes than the best All Black teams would expect to mishandle in an entire calendar year.
Three of these tries were an embarrassment to Mike Ford, the England defence strategist – he must have felt like hanging himself when Sione Lauaki ambled over from the back of a scrum just past the hour mark – and none of them were unpreventable.
Ford must be feeling just a little uncomfortable as Johnson prepares to move into Twickenham in a week's time, but when he chewed the fat before leaving for the airport yesterday, he was right about one thing: Dan Carter, the New Zealand outside-half, is one hell of an act. "He stresses you out," he admitted.
England could hardly complain of injustice on the scoreboard given the amount of waste they accumulated. Tom Varndell allowed an obvious try-scoring opportunity to slip away when he allowed himself to be tackled into touch by Leon MacDonald; Tait dropped the ball over the line when it might have been easier to score; Barkley went wide with a penalty from a position smack in front of the sticks.
All things considered, then, there was precious little to gladden the heart. Care's tap-and-scamper routine for the first of England's tries? Excellent. Tait's perfectly-timed pass to Varndell for the second of them? Magical. These isolated peaks aside, Johnson must fall back on some aggressive work in the loose by a young back-row trio and Steve Borthwick's intelligent management of the line-out as he searches for reasons to be cheerful. To use an old West Country phrase: it would not look a lot in a bucket.
New Zealand: L MacDonald (Canterbury); S Sivivatu (Waikato), R Kahui (Waikato), M Nonu (Wellington), R Wulf (North Harbour); D Carter (Canterbury), A Ellis (Canterbury); N Tialata (Wellington), A Hore (Taranaki), G Somerville (Canterbury), B Thorn (Tasman), A Williams (Tasman), A Thomson (Otago), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: A Boric (North Harbour) for Williams, 15; S Lauaki (Waikato) for McCaw, 31; K Mealamu (Auckland) for Hore, 39-40 and 50; A Woodcock (North Harbour) for Tialata, h-t; J Cowan (Southland) for Ellis, 68; M Muliaina (Waikato) for Kahui, 77-79; S Donald (Waikato) for Carter, 79.
England: M Tait (Newcastle); T Ojo (London Irish), M Tindall (Gloucester), J Noon (Newcastle), T Varndell (Leicester); T Flood (Newcastle), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), T Palmer (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath, capt), J Haskell (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), L Narraway (Gloucester). Replacements: O Barkley (Bath) for Flood, 33; J Worsley (Wasps) for Rees, 52; T Croft (Leicester) for Narraway, 56; B Kay (Leicester) for Palmer, 69; J Hobson (Bristol) for Stevens, 73; P Richards (London Irish) for Tait, 77; D Paice (London Irish) for Mears, 80.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa)
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