The Calvin report: Tale of respect and proper perspective
England eager to learn how the All Blacks defend the honour and pride of a nation with humility
Sunday 17 November 2013
The All Blacks don't follow the modern trend for emotional incontinence. Their gestures of respect are measured and profound. Those who seek their secrets have rarely had such a public insight into their psyche, and the standards which seem set to generate the perfect season.
The irony, that Twickenham was virtually deserted when their captain Richie McCaw revealed the mutual respect and communal spirit which underpins rugby's most compelling culture, was lost on the denizens of Middle England, who had retired to the bar after going to war on behalf of their team.
The catalyst was a simple presentation of a silver cap to mark Dan Carter's 100th appearance. He had hobbled off after 26 minutes of a match of relentless intensity, which was leavened by mistakes and players operating on the margins of legality and endurance.
"Playing alongside DC, you come to rely on a man who is calm, and pretty much always takes the right option" said McCaw, another of only five All Black centurions. "Most people see him come out on a Saturday and just be a champion. I see the hard work that goes in to make him one of the true greats of world rugby.
"Every generation has a player who is pretty special. I've got to say you are one of those, mate. Your love and commitment to the All Blacks is a true inspiration to the young guys. He enjoys a beer, enjoys his mates, and the team is always bigger than him. We salute you."
Carter was suitably abashed by such a character reference. Greatness is a subjective judgement, an indulgence due to the brutal physicality of such an emotionally-charged match, and occasion. Legendary status demands selflessness and sacrifice, and tends to reward resilience.
England flirted with such fulfilment. Their forwards could have been hewn from the granite of All Black mythology; the ultimate compliment one can pay Billy Vunipola, Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley is that they would not have looked out of place in black. At full-back Mike Brown is made of the right stuff.
The build-up was dominated by the definition of sporting greatness. In football Bayern Munich, like Spain's national side, have dynastic pretensions. There are peerless teams operating in British cycling, American basketball and Australian Rugby League.
These All Blacks are different because of the totality of what they represent. Some 110 years of history was poured into 80 minutes of rugby yesterday, on the type of bright crisp afternoon which presages winter. They are an army of Orcs, who inspire poetry, and march with malicious intent.
Most of all, they have a remorseless sense of responsibility to a small, isolated nation, whose inhabitants are referred to as "shareholders". They marry substance with sustainability, evolve and improve with telling certainty.
England's coach Stuart Lancaster travelled 11,000 miles to study at first hand the lessons of nationhood. He seeks to place his warriors in a similar context, of men who represent a human timeline. Games such as these are designed to define the DNA of players, who are reminded of the privilege of their presence, however transient.
One of the definitive attributes of the All Black system is the way change is implemented subtly but consistently. Human resources are cherished; Carter will be the latest icon to be given six months off, to replenish and recharge. He, McCaw and the scrum-half Aaron Smith, a fellow veteran, intend to stick around at least until the 2015 World Cup.
Lancaster's pride in his team was visible, and well founded, but his recycling campaign has been frustrated by untimely injuries. The punishing nature of modern rugby meant that only seven of the side which defeated New Zealand on December 1 last year, survived. As he pointed out, he was without the services of six British Lions.
All Black scars had not healed during those 50 weeks and, at last, the old ground was seized by a spirit of defiance. The anthem singer was drowned out by the crowd, who bellowed Swing Low Sweet Chariot during the Haka, led by the flanker Liam Messam. That's as advisable as mocking Mike Tyson's lisp, or tap dancing down the fast lane of a motorway.
Within 105 seconds, the All Blacks had punished such disrespect with ominous ease. Man of the match Julian Savea cut inside after Kieran Reid had taken out three defenders with a pick up, drive and off load. It set the tempo for a compelling contest.
Reid, whose subsequent 15th Test try set a record for a Kiwi No 8, quickly had five tributaries of blood running beneath his left eye. That suggested someone, quite probably Wood, had acted upon the shouted instruction to "hit him".
Chris Robshaw's grotesquely swollen left eye suggested, with equal certainty, that retribution had been enforced. "That's what Test rugby is all about," he said. It's a hard school, but on days like these, the lessons are worth hanging around for.
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