Peter Bills: Henry's men dragged down to England's level

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A regulation day at the office...

Good enough to overcome a poor, limited England side. But proof that New Zealand are ending the year on a real high? Hardly.

This was a scratchy, at times scatty performance by the All Blacks. To be stunned by England's spirited opening in the first 20 minutes was a surprise. To be held at 6-6 until 23 minutes from the end was a major shock.

For all England's spirit and urgency, the reality was they possessed little real skill, creativity or threat. Yet they were level pegging with Graham Henry's men almost until the start of the last quarter. More a comment on the All Blacks' failings, surely, than England's deeds.

England remain what Australia and Argentina showed them to be in the previous two weeks: a desperately ordinary outfit. The fact that the All Blacks needed virtually an hour to take a decisive grip on the game was hardly a comment on New Zealand excellence.

Silly, elementary errors, poor, wobbly finishing and a lack of composure, even from Daniel Carter: for long periods, this was an unrecognisable New Zealand team.

If you cite their inability to seize control; yes, if you like, arrogance in dominating the game, you'd have to say the All Blacks came up short yesterday (NZT). Too many balls lost, too many promising positions squandered by too many examples of lack of composure, vision or patience.

Only when the forwards at last hammered England into submission with a series of power surges into the home team's 22, and the ball was then moved down the blindside for Jimmy Cowan's try, could New Zealand finally break a resolute, but hardly sophisticated England defence.

The trouble was, for too long New Zealand let themselves be dragged down closer to England's moderate level than rising above the mediocrity through their own supremacy.

Too many players made far too many uncharacteristic mistakes.

Conrad Smith failed to finish off a try-scoring move towards the left corner by passing earlier; Carter dropped Ma'a Nonu's flip-pass when a sizeable gap was there to exploit and scrambling defence denied Mils Muliaina a first-half try in the corner.

In anyone's language, this was a disappointing performance by the All Blacks. It was too reminiscent of the modest displays that hallmarked so much of their Tri-Nations season. A lack of true dynamism in smashing aside opponents around the forward fringes so as to fracture the defence in close, too much indecision behind when the ball was moved wide.

Muliaina almost scored, Zac Guildford made a promising run out of defence but lost the ball forward in a tackle by Jonny Wilkinson; Smith butchered a chance and other opportunities went begging. At one point towards the end of the first half, New Zealand recycled the ball through 15 phases and went virtually nowhere.

It was like watching England play.

Even though Carter kicked erratically, he finally punished a tiring England's increasing error tally, finishing with four penalty goals. But a 13-point win over this England side?

If France, who meet the All Blacks in Marseille next Sunday, replicate anything like the spirit, physical power and mental desire they showed in beating South Africa a week or so back in Toulouse, the All Blacks will have to raise their game by at least 50 per cent next weekend. Otherwise, this tour will end in bitter disappointment.

Somehow, mysteriously, the All Blacks seemed to struggle to get up for this game. They've played a lot of rugby; they must be tired.

England weren't good enough to take advantage. But France probably will be, if such lethargy is repeated.