Perched high up from my seat in Twickenham's west stand I watched a slightly off-colour All Blacks do enough to beat a rather unbalanced England on a drizzly afternoon at the home of rugby yesterday afternoon.
It was my first trip to Twickenham to watch an England test match, and whilst it might not have been the most exhilarating, free-flowing game in the world it was a brilliant occasion with a atmosphere to match. England supporters haven't had much to cheer about in recent weeks, so with me fully expecting England to be dished out a rather unappetizing rugby lesson from Ritchie McCaw and pals, all I really hoped for was that England came out to play some rugby and didn't just capitulate at the hands of the currently top ranked team in the world.
"Right boys. They've laid out the red carpet for us. Let's give them a pasting."
Going in to this game there were plenty of subplots:
Dan Carter needed only two more points to overtake Andrew Mehrtons and become New Zealand's highest point scorer of all time. There was also Carter's much hyped face off with Jonny Wilkinson to consider, heralded as a clash between the best fly-half in the world and his injury ravaged predecessor. Oh, and then there was also the small matter of the microscope that had been firmly placed over Martin Johnson, his coaching squad and their team selection. Surely a bad performance against New Zealand would result in a few casualties in this department, wouldn't it?
The game began and it was England who looked the steadier team and more physical and committed. Matt Banahan looked like he'd caught a bought of rabies from 'Mad Dog' Lewis Moody, as from the kick off he sprinted and harried and gave Moody the opportunity to put pressure on the clearance kick from Dan Carter. In fact, I don't know if Mehrton's record was playing on Carter's mind but he had a rather shaky start which developed into one of the worst performances I've seen him play. With an astonishing record of slotting 31 out of his last 32 attempts on goal, the Twickenham crowd fully expected Carter to pass Mehrton's record within the first few minutes when New Zealand won a penalty.
The crowd held its breath and no doubt the commentators on Sky waxed lyrical about Carter's accuracy and his amazing conversion rate - just as Carter proceeded to push the ball wide. WHAT? A let off for England.
Rain started to fall and the game inevitably got a bit scrappy. To their credit, both teams still tried to run with the ball and it didn't disintegrate into a tedious kick-fest. A slippy ball and surface almost provided Ugo Monye with the opening try when he tackled Zak Guildford who was running the ball out of the New Zealand twenty-two, causing it to pop up and land in Monye's hands. Monye sprinted over the line but the try was ruled out by referee Jonathan Kaplan. I had a great view of Monye's effort and I thought it looked fine, but having seen the replay this morning, as much as it pains me to say it, Kaplan was right.
Despite their efforts to run the ball England's back line still played too deep and never really threatened the advantage line. Jonny Wilkinson needs to stand flatter like he does at Toulon and drag the backs up with him. With all the excitement of an 'almost try' for England, Wilkinson settled Twickenham's nerves by coolly kicking England's first scoring opportunity when New Zealand infringed at the breakdown. 3-0 to England after 15 minutes.
Jonny opens the scoring
What then followed was a litany of mistakes from the usually faultless Carter. A missed kick into touch; a spill of the ball in the tackle; kicks up field that lacked their usual epic length. Why Carter didn't try and put pressure on butterfingers Banahan and Monye with the high ball I don't know. Instead he was happy to kick the ball up field where the much more composed Cueto was waiting, and despite not having played at full back for Sale this season he looked calm under the high ball. Even though Carter's kicking boots weren't weaving their usual magic, the line-out that resulted from one of his successful kicks into touch almost saw New Zealand cross the line for the first time. The ball was fed out from the line-out to Carter who was standing flat. He passed the ball to Conrad Smith who made a break and linked up with full back Mils Mulianina who would have scored in the corner had it not been for Monye's rapid scramble defence. A lesson for England: New Zealand were playing flat, quickly crossed the advantage line and almost scored. A worrying threat from the All Blacks at the end of the first quarter.
Finally, New Zealand fans got to see what they had been waiting for when Tim Payne was penalised for a couple of punches that he casually threw in at the breakdown. I've no idea why this didn't earn him a yellow card so England were lucky in this respect, but not where Carter was concerned as he finally found his kicking boots and easily scored his first points of the game with a brilliant kick in the tricky conditions. Congratulations on passing Mehrton's record Dan.
Carter lining up to pass Mehrton's record
Wilkinson and Carter exchanged another penalty each before half time (along with yet another uncharacteristic miss from Carter), and then the England belief and defence saw them shut down the New Zealand threat in the last five minutes of the half when they threatened the England line. This was a definite step up from England's performance against Argentina.
The second half started in much the same way as the first, with both teams trying to play expansive rugby and both teams failing as the ball went to ground. The first echoes of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" reverberated from the stands but it couldn't prevent New Zealand scoring what turned out to be the only try of the game when scrum-half Jimmy Cowan crossed after excellent link up play between Sitiveni Sivivatu and Richie McCaw. Now with his eyes firmly on the prize, Carter successfully kicked a difficult conversion from the touchline to take his tally to four kicks from six. 6-16 to the All Blacks after 59 minutes.
As the rain started to fall harder, England started to try and force the game. Despite having a penalty in the bag, Jonny Wilkinson tried for a drop goal and failed. Why didn't you push for the try Jonny or at least go back for the place-kicked penalty? With England pushing the game New Zealand capitalized again due to their ability to quickly get over the gainline. Replacement hooker Steve Thompson got pinged by referee Kaplan for diving in at the breakdown, gifting the rather off-colour Carter an easy penalty under the posts to take the score to 6-19 with just over ten minutes remaining.
Maybe the fact that England had made 112 tackles to New Zealand's 60 meant that they were tiring, so even with Geraghty and Tait on the field the last ditch attempts to pressurize the All Blacks line failed.
The game ended with a rather scrappy New Zealand beating England by 6-19.
Before the game I said I wanted to see England play and they definitely did that to a higher standard than they showed against Australia and Argentina. Industry, passion and commitment were all in evidence but accuracy and incision were sadly missing. With the selections of Erinle and Hipkiss in the centre, Shaw in the second row and Banahan on the wing it was clear that Martin Johnson had assembled a team that could physically front up to the All Blacks. That's fine, but in doing this there was no room for the finishers which left a rather unbalanced side. There's a lot of work needed before the Six Nations, but hopefully with players like Toby Flood coming back from injury it might help sort out England's midfield woes.
New Zealand on the other hand, put in a generally good all round performance but with no real standout players. I was really happy to watch them in my first ever live international game but they are still very much a work in progress and yesterday they weren't the prolific New Zealand side that I have come to expect. Still, it's their third game on the bounce where they haven't conceded a try, although they've got plenty to work on before they face their big test of their autumn tour when they take on France in Marseille next weekend.