As difficult missions go, it must be far easier to pilfer a few golden apples or slay the odd nine-headed monster than catch Christian Cullen from behind, keep track of Andrew Mehrtens or rip a rugby ball away from the tree-trunk arms of Olo Brown. The Barbarians, All Blacks by any other name, dealt England their heaviest Twickenham defeat in 12 years and in winning 34-19 they reminded almost 80,000 enthralled spectators of New Zealand's utter supremacy at Test level.
In short, the tourists were magnificent. They scored four tries, might easily have pocketed three more and in Cullen, Mehrtens, Justin Marshall and Carlos Spencer they possessed attacking weaponry of a far higher calibre than anything England could drag out of the gun cupboard. Heaven help the opposition when Jonah Lomu returns to something approaching full fitness.
Understandably, Rowell was quick to point out that England entered the final quarter all square at 19-19 and were within three points as late as the 74th minute; that on the face of it a relatively raw and immature outfit have taken the best side in the world right down to the wire before slipping away at the death. Believe that and you will believe anything.
The New Zealanders, operating without six first-choice internationals, had known that they had the measure of their opponents at a much earlier stage. Half-time, to be precise. As the eternally competitive Fitzpatrick said afterwards: "The pressure we applied in the first 44 minutes did the damage because it forced England to make an awful lot of tackles. It opened them up for us later on.
"I wondered how well we would last after the season we've had, but I thought the guys looked good at the interval and our fitness showed towards the end." This from a near-exhausted captain at the conclusion of the longest and most shatteringly intense campaign ever undertaken by a top- flight rugby nation.
Not only were the Barbarians the fitter side, they were more adept at the basics and, crucially, were yards quicker in thought and deed. John Hart, their coach, put a well-directed finger on England's problem when he criticised their lack of genuine pace. "Speed was the determining factor out there," he pronounced, much as a maths teacher tries to explain logarithms to a class of innumerate 12-year-olds. "The new rules demand speed more than size and I think the pace of our game got to England. The speed-skill combination is the key to winning rugby. The big English forwards showed good hands at close quarters but the vital thing is to be able to get out wide and put the passes in when the game is flowing."
At least Simon Shaw might reasonably expect to graduate with honours from the Hart academy. The young Bristol lock not only punched his considerable weight at scrum and line-out - "the England tight five definitely got on to us," conceded Fitzpatrick - but roamed around the pitch to such effect that he was regularly second to the breakdown behind Lawrence Dallaglio and, having got there, went on to demonstrate that he possessed the ball skills to contribute far more than most men of his bulk. With his partner Martin Johnson also bang on the money, the Lions selectors should hand over two flight tickets to Johannesburg without further ado.
Tim Stimpson also caught the eye after a quiet opener against the Italians 10 days ago. The Newcastle full-back hit Alama Ieremia with the kitchen sink early on and, nerves nicely settled, dropped into an accomplished rhythm from which nothing, not even Mehrtens' wicked high swirlers, could distract him. Stimpson scored a peach of a try on 51 minutes to give England a six-point lead - great work from Shaw and Dallaglio created havoc in the Barbarian defence - and had the home side been able to fall back on even the most averagely proficient kicking game, they might have made the visitors sweat.
Sadly, a one-legged mule would have kicked better from hand than England on Saturday. Andy Gomarsall, Mike Catt and Phil de Glanville were all guilty, not only of misdirecting workaday touchfinders but of banging them straight into the grateful arms of Cullen, Lomu and Mehrtens, none of whom is noted for his Samaritan approach to suicidally inclined back divisions. "The one thing we didn't want was to kick to their runners," said Rowell, cringing at the thought of all that wasted possession. "Cullen in particular has an extra gear or two, yet we kept giving him the ball."
An extra gear was precisely what England needed as the clock ticked past the hour mark, but Rowell opted to keep Jeremy Guscott chained to the bench. That decision was made to look all the more peculiar by Hart's own inspired substitutions, Dylan Mika for Taine Randell and Spencer for Mehrtens.
They were cute moves; Mika's muscular intervention helped break the backbone of England's fringe defence while Spencer, lacking Mehrtens' exceptional range of skills but absolutely electric with ball in hand, effectively settled the issue between the 74th and 76th minutes.
The 21-year-old Aucklander landed a pressure penalty to give his side a three-point lead before accelerating into a gap between Chris Sheasby and De Glanville, swerving outside Gomarsall and outstripping the covering Stimpson for the try of the match. Joeli Vidiri then rubbed it in by scoring at the right flag in the last minute, aided and abetted by a questionable Ian Jones pass that had more than a touch of the Joe Montanas about it.
That, at least, was hard on England, but if they are to hold out any hope for closing the gulf on these New Zealanders, they must now be hard on themselves.
ENGLAND: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), A Adebayo (Bath); M Catt (Bath), A Gomarsall (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), T Rodber (Northampton), C Sheasby (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps).
NEW ZEALAND BARBARIANS: C Cullen (Manawatu); J Vidiri (Counties), A Ieremia (Wellington), L Stensness (Auckland), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury); M Allen (Taranaki), S Fitzpatrick (Auckland, capt), O Brown (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), R Brooke (Auckland), M Jones (Auckland), T Randell (Otago), A Blowers (Auckland). Replacements: D Mika (Auckland) for Randell, 56; C Spencer (Auckland) for Mehrtens, 60.
Referee: C Thomas (Wales).
England under Rowell
SOUTH AFRICA TOUR
18 May 94 v Orange Free State (Bloemfontein) Lost 22-11
21 May 94 v Natal (Durban) Lost 21-6
25 May 94 v Western Transvaal (Potchefstroom) Won 26-24
31 May 94 v South Africa A (Kimberley) Lost 19-16
4 June 94 v South Africa (Pretoria) Won 32-15
7 June 94 v Eastern Province (Pretoria) Won 31-13
11 June 94 v South Africa (Cape Town) Lost 27-9
12 Nov 94 v Romania (Twickenham) Won 54-3
10 Dec 94 v Canada (Twickenham) Won 60-19
FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP 1995
21 Jan 95 v Ireland (Lansdowne Road) Won 20-8
4 Feb 95 v France (Twickenham) Won 31-10
18 Feb 95 v Wales (Cardiff) Won 23-9
18 Mar 95 v Scotland (Twickenham) Won 24-12
WORLD CUP 1995
27 May 95 v Argentina (Durban) Won 24-18
30 May 95 v Italy (Durban) Won 27-20
3 June 95 v Western Samoa (Durban) Won 244-22
11 June 95 v Australia (Cape Town) Won 25-22
18 June 95 v New Zealand (Cape Town, semi-final) Lost 45-29
22 June 95 v France (Pretoria, 3rd place play-off) Lost 19-9
18 Nov 95 v South Africa (Twickenham) Lost 24-14
16 Dec 95 v Western Samoa (Twickenham) Won 27-9
FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP 1996
20 Jan 96 v France (Paris) Lost 15-12
3 Feb 96 v Wales (Twickenham) Won 21-15
2 Mar 96 v Scotland (Murrayfield) Won 18-9
16 Mar 96 v Ireland (Twickenham) Won 28-15
18 Nov 96 v Italy (Twickenham) Won 54-21
30 Nov 96 v New Zealand Barbarians (Twickenham) Lost 34-19Reuse content