England vs New Zealand comment: Warrior wisdom of old battler Richie McCaw separates the men from the boys at Twickenham

The All Blacks remain far superior 10 months out from the World Cup

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The Independent Online

They were the wiser team in all things, even the act of remembrance. Twickenham laid on more manufactured hope and glory than ever to create a sense of occasion for England, but the words of Richie McCaw late on Saturday revealed that their opponents were quietly infused with pride in their forefathers’ sacrifice, too. “Our population was one million and 100,000 came to fight over here,” the All Black captain said. “That puts some extra reality into what you do. We are all here, living the way we are, because of what those men did...”

Those men included McCaw’s grandfather, J H “Jim” McCaw, who flew 300 sorties from Royal Air Force bases in the Second World War, but the flanker’s words were spoken flat and straight because he doesn’t like a song and dance. You might say his understated tone was a paradigm for the way the All Blacks team had just ground England down into the mud in the teeming rain outside.

Sometimes, champions will overwhelm an adversary; perform with a fury and flair which just takes the breath away. Sometimes, champions will just suffocate all the rest. This was the more unprepossessing of the two.

Saturday’s moment of sublimity was early and English – Jonny May fizzing down the left to the try-line, like a firework. But by the onset of dusk he was a distant memory. Stuart Lancaster knew what carried the real significance. “They maintained skill under pressure, even when the conditions closed in,” he said of the All Blacks.

It wasn’t just the rain that closed in. There was also the loss of a man, Dane Coles, whose departure to the sin bin would have diminished lesser teams. It had a different effect on the All Blacks, distilling everything they did down to the simple stuff. Suddenly, there were the low-risk short passes and the narrow pick-and-gos – the ball retrieved from the depths of the ruck and delivered to the forwards to pile on with again, robbing England of another precious 30 seconds each time they took another All Black down.

Let it be said that the old dark arts of McCaw were written through that period too. An unnoticed tap here, an invisible illegal ruck entry there. Idealism doesn’t make you the world’s outstanding rugby union player.

“We didn’t want to give them an easy out,” McCaw said of that 10-minute spell, in which he was commander-in-chief. “I could sense our guys were excited. You could see it in our own boys’ eyes that we had something extra. That [dismissal] just flicked the switch. You would like to be able to do that without being down to 14 men but that’s what it did.”

 

Steve Hansen sensed the significance too. “I think that hurt them a wee bit. The reality is we won the game in those 10 minutes.” The All Blacks won the period 3-0.

You needed to talk to some of the others to drill down into how a light can go on in a team which has just been reduced in number. Aaron Smith had evidently been at the hub of it. The half-back has always fancied himself as a man to chuck the ball in, ever since he and Sam Whitelock were at Feilding High School together on New Zealand’s North Island. It was he who lobbied to replace Coles in the lineout throwing department. “Aaron being Aaron, he is always pretty confident,” Whitelock related later. “He wanted to throw to the back but we said, ‘No, no, no, no! Go to the front.’ Aaron wants to do it all the time. There’s usually a bit of tongue in cheek that goes with it.”

Had the world champions rehearsed being a 14 on the fields of the Old Country, too? “No,” Whitelock told me flatly. Some challenges, it seems, are best embraced as they come, with relish, in the rain and the raw.

The game management spoke to the essential difference between these two nations: experience. We read the memorable story on these pages on Saturday of Dave Attwood’s new experience of fatherhood making him feel ready to “pull a tree out of the ground and batter someone over the head with it”. Danny Care and Joe Marler have just joined that club too. But the All Blacks boys have been there, done that. The parental experience of adolescence is next for them.

It only stands to reason it was men versus boys at Twickenham’s wide acres. Sport’s habit of putting away the past and looking only to the next challenge makes it easy to forget it’s only three years since the Rugby Football Union ripped it all up and started again, after the ignominy of events at the last World Cup in New Zealand. Remember that Lancaster appointed a captain, Chris Robshaw, who had only two internationals to his name. England – 437 collective appearances to the All Blacks’ 1,023 – are only just through the foothills of the peak they must scale.

Their coach says that “with another 12 months inside us” England can be ready to put away this opposition next autumn. That year equates to a mere handful of matches, though. The evidence of Saturday reinforces the notion that the World Cup will have come at least a year too soon for Lancaster’s new England to defeat the biggest, strongest, wisest unit of them all.

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