James Lawton: A work in progress? For Robshaw and his men, the future is now
Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter seemed maybe even time-expired
Slightly more than a year ago England were charged with gross, even absurd pretension. On New Zealand soil – of all places – they dressed themselves in the uniform of the All Blacks.
It was somewhat like a pub singer passing himself off as Luciano Pavarotti.
Yet sometimes in sport, as in life, the strangest and most exhilarating things come to pass. Last year's miserable impersonation is today's badge of hope – a wardrobe choice retrospectively infused with something more than a combination of cheap commercialism if not the wildest fantasy.
The meaning of what England did to the All Blacks here on Saturday will, of course, demand some hard months of serious testing but, for the moment at least, it can be seen not so much as a quantum leap as a journey into another world.
A world, this is, of most superior rugby, of power and speed which bears no kind of resemblance to the clanking tedium of so much of what England produced on their way to this trouncing of the world champions who had also laid claim to membership of the inner circle of history's great teams.
Understandably enough, England head coach Stuart Lancaster likened it to the flowering – if such a delicate word can be applied to such brutality, however sweetly executed – of a well nurtured and notably hardy plant. For some stunned observers it was more like the splitting of the heavens, but in the smoke and the fire there were images of most substantial, down-to-earth promise.
There was Manu Tuilagi, formerly a mere force of tempestuous and too often one-dimensional nature, playing rugby of devastating and beautifully measured impact.
At half-back Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell suggested that they may have emerged as pillars of empire-building, though the latter is plainly besieged by the sleek and adventurous promise of Saturday's understudy, Freddie Burns.
Youngs' elder brother Tom overwhelmed that once most formidable of hookers, Keven Mealamu. Tom Wood was immense in the back row.
And, somewhere deep into arguably the greatest upset in the history of rugby, the scale of the convulsion could be measured in one extraordinary possibility.
It was that the All Black team we had come to celebrate, one which was being undressed in front of 81,000 scarcely believing eyes, was perhaps suffering more than an utterly unanticipated ambush by England. Maybe it was being ushered, even frog-marched, down the high road of history.
Unthinkable though it was in the cold dawn, by dusk a preposterous idea had been moulded into something quite different by the most astonishing events.
Could it really be that we had already seen the best of two of the game's historic figures? Suddenly, as England, this vibrant England which had emerged from the camouflage of mediocrity like a bunch of ferocious guerrilla fighters, worked their destruction, Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter seemed not only inconsequential but maybe even time-expired.
McCaw, who was winning his 116th cap, will be 32 later this month. By then he will be adjusting to the six-month leave of absence which is designed to relight fires that have burnt so fiercely over the last 11 years and carry him to one last, huge hurrah in defence of the World Cup title here in 2015.
Long before the end of the English triumph, however, this seemed less a piece of forward planning than a concession that the great man is, after all, composed of nothing more divine than flesh and blood.
Carter, the sublimely subtle game-maker, is 30 but there were times here when he looked considerably older. In a thousand years his admirable young opposite number Farrell might never illuminate his game so artfully, but indisputably he was the master of the day with his slide-rule place kicking and winner's aura. Carter was more than beaten. He was required to consider, perhaps more deeply than ever before, his own rugby mortality.
Carter missed the preceding game in Cardiff but he pronounced himself free of injury on Saturday and the All Black coach, Steve Hansen, was emphatic that there would be no excuses from the team that had gone 20 games without defeat. Fatigue at the end of a long season, a degree of complacency in tired minds, the unhelpful visit of a stomach bug, all of the available alibis meant nothing against the force of the English performance, the seizing of a moment with such prodigious conviction.
It was not just in the assured physicality which brought a 15-point lead but the extraordinary response to a few minutes of authentic All Black brilliance, which produced two tries of sweeping authority and the suggestion that a terrible impertinence was about to yield a quite shattering reprimand.
England not only survived that threat, they created for themselves an entirely new horizon. Their first victory over New Zealand in nine years was bound to provoke the memory of another triumph which also came in 2003, the World Cup success which announced that the rugby nation with the largest playing population indeed had both the power and the wit to compete with the southern hemisphere.
Hansen conceded the point when he agreed that we had just seen two teams capable of winning the crown in 2015. Of course, there were differences between the hemispheres, environmental, psychological, stylistic and physical priorities, but in the end, he said, it came right down to "one game of footy".
The extent of the mastery of Lancaster's team in this one certainly demanded a sharp revision, if not a complete decommissioning, of the idea that he had already served his primary purpose by delivering England from the shadow of the scandalous indiscipline which made the old side a laughing stock during the last World Cup.
Here was a young team who turned what had been an excruciatingly slow march into a quite extraordinary cavalry charge. Can it be maintained?
It's a huge question but it is also a thrilling one. Time may bring some new perspective but it cannot remake the old hiding place of all those who claim they are a work in progress. The future is now and it is one in which captain Chris Robshaw and his men have to live by a new standard. They can hardly complain, not after slaughtering the All Blacks, and look fit to wear any shade of shirt you might care to mention.
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