The Calvin Report: Another dynasty might just be in the making
This was surely the greatest moment for English rugby since time stood still that fabled night in Sydney nine years ago when the World Cup was won
Sunday 02 December 2012
Rugby Union, bloody hell. Twickenham was in thrall to the wondrous uncertainty of international sport and the sort of occasion that deserved to be recorded for posterity, not by a box score but by the intensity and lyricism of war poetry.
This was the greatest moment for English rugby since time stood still that fabled night in Sydney 2003 when Johnny Wilkinson's drop goal floated in instalments of fractions of a second between the uprights, and a World Cup was won.
It might even have been the greatest England victory at Twickenham since Billy Williams got bored by market gardening and transformed his cabbage patch into a playground for the muddied oafs of popular legend.
Stuart Lancaster's England are still in the foothills of sustained and substantial achievement, but their journey has a sudden clarity and certainty. The head coach did his best to remain analytical, but came as close as he dared to acknowledging that another dynasty might be in the making.
His assistant, Andy Farrell, was more engaged and emotionally driven. He spoke of fearlessness, of players "pouring their hearts and souls" into a victory that made a mockery of bookmakers who chalked up the All Blacks as 1-12 favourites to end the year unbeaten.
Yet perhaps the most telling judgement was made by the New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen. "I find it interesting so many of you are surprised," he said. "England showed me how good they can be. There were two teams capable of winning the World Cup out there."
This was not an artful application of pressure and avoidance of blame. He knows the rigour of the inquest which awaits on the other side of the world. It was merely professional acceptance that young men like Owen Farrell, Tom Wood, Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw came of age.
Everything in New Zealand is judged by 110 years of history rather than 80 minutes of rugby, but this was something special, a humiliation bordering on heresy. Middle England was en fête. That tired old anthem, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, became a rebel song.
It was bellowed defiantly at the All Blacks during the Haka, one of those don't-blink-don't-breathe rituals that restore a sense of pageantry to international sport. It was sung supportively as England's painfully acquired lead was trimmed to a single point. It was recycled in exultation as darkness fell, and disbelief was diluted by a flood tide of alcohol.
The All Blacks, a team who transcend their nation and their sport, were ambushed when history beckoned. Men whose craggy features, grounded personalities and remorseless sense of duty deserve to be recorded on a sporting version of Mount Rushmore, carved out somewhere on the South Island, were dismantled piece by piece.
These All Blacks became world champions at Eden Park in October last year. Instead of luxuriating in the achievement, and exploiting the unaccustomed gratitude of a uniquely demanding public, they dedicated themselves to redefining the meaning of being the best of the best. Failure to extend an unbeaten run to 21 Tests will leave vivid scars on their psyche.
Richie McCaw won the World Cup on one leg – he knew he had broken bones in his foot but ignored the pain because he understood that confirmation, in an X ray, would be used in evidence against him – and yesterday hailed England before heading off on a six-month break that will be more reflective than he had imagined. "There is no doubt there is some talent in that team," he said. "They didn't panic when we got in the game, and the more you play international rugby, the more you understand what it takes to do it consistently."
It can take a decade to shape a World Cup-winning side. Adversity is uniquely educational, and the harshest lessons are the most enduring. England proved a fundamental point yesterday – that they are learning quickly on the job. Lancaster looked forward "seven, eight, nine years" and envisaged "the same players playing for us". Optimistic, perhaps, but admirable.
The best rugby players share the mentality of successful boxers, authentic athletes rather than end-of-the-pier showmen like David Haye. They seek the fire of fear. It warms them to their bones and they are indifferent to the chances of being burned. They accept pressure, relish it, reconfigure it, turn it in on their opponents.
England are playing a different type of regeneration game to New Zealand, who have introduced nine new players this season from a position of strength. But, on the sort of crisp, cold afternoon which announces the onset of winter, they emulated the All Blacks and did the simple things well. Unsuspected levels of mental strength enabled them to play at a high intensity for longer than they dared imagine.
The All Blacks were undermined by the relentlessness of England's ambition, collective faith and physical will. Callow by comparison, they had a champions' spirit and application. Opponents who supposedly exist on a higher plane were dwarfed. Dan Carter, the greatest fly-half of his generation, added a mere four points to his Test record haul of 1,385. Farrell overshadowed him with a series of long, languid swings of his boot.
It was such a redemptive performance that the capacity crowd struggled to take in its significance. The England squad shared their appetite for celebration. They can be heroes. And, with apologies to David Bowie, not just for one day.
The good, bad and indifferent of England's autumn
England came out of last year's World Cup needing a refresher on what playing for their country meant. They have made admirable strides, combining humility with clear purpose. Now to bolt on the on-field excellence. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, is steadily displaying the twin knacks of understanding what the opposition are going to do and mixing new blood with the development of known talent.
Chris Ashton has been regarded as one of the first names on the England teamsheet and a likely Lion next summer. Yet the Saracens wing had gone 12 Tests tryless, and was a neutered force previously this autumn. Having blown a first-half half-chance yesterday, he scored only his fourth try against a Sanzar team – the other three were against the Wallabies in 2010 – and, not surprisingly, revelled in his scoring splash.
It was a surprise in midweek when Owen Farrell was named on the shortlist of four for the IRB World Player of the Year. But Lancaster praised the 21-year-old fly-half's big-game temperament and Farrell may now have nudged ahead of Toby Flood, with Freddie Burns as an exciting back-up.
Scrum and line-out
With the injured hooker Dylan Hartley to return alongside Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero, and with Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes expected to keep improving, England's pack is maturing nicely. No one should forget their scrummaging hiccups against Australia, but Hartley's understudy Tom Youngs was an unexpected find.
The numbers game
Lancaster follows the accepted wisdom that an international team at their peak will average 40 or 50 caps each and that is the aim by 2015. In the meantime England's players may have to slog through upwards of 70 club matches. They get broken often – only Cole has played in all England's 12 Tests this year – but if intact they must have a fighting chance in a home World Cup.
A different bounce of the ball – say, a safe catch by Mouritz Botha or Ben Morgan from South Africa's last kick-off last weekend – and captain Chris Robshaw's calls over kicks might have turned out spot-on. England have not embraced Harlequins' offloading style but look happy following the lead of the champion club's skipper.
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