England unleash a stunning performance
It has helped England that their best pack is now emerging. Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood, Ben Morgan and Alex Corbisiero were all absent from the starting XV against Australia; their transparent hunger and intensity has made a huge difference.
If Lancaster could go back and amend one selection this autumn, he would probably promote Launchbury from the bench for the Wallaby game.
It makes the upcoming Six Nations even more fascinating. By then England will have Dylan Hartley, Tom Croft and Ben Foden available again, as well as a fully-fit Courtney Lawes. If Lancaster also readjusts his elite player squad in January to include Gloucester’s Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees, he will have the best of all worlds: a tight-knit group with rising self-belief, a committed defence and a sprinkling of attacking x-factor.
This was the first time the All Blacks have been kept scoreless in the first half of a Test match since July 1998 as well as, remarkably, their second-worst defeat by anyone since 1928.
The trick now for England is to ensure that this result was more than just a bolt from a clear blue winter’s sky. Two years ago everybody thought Johnson’s England had found the key to lasting happiness when they blitzed Australia 35-18, only to be disappointed. There is a more grounded feel this time; within moments of the final whistle the captain, Chris Robshaw, had gathered his players together and told them he expected more of the same when they launch their Six Nations campaign against Scotland in early February.
Not the least part of Lancaster’s success has been extracting a higher level of dynamism and ambition from players who too often have those qualities smashed out of them in the Premiership. The Lions selectors will also have looked on with interest. Positive-minded players in a successful side are always worth a look and trumping Carter has added further credence to Owen Farrell’s nomination for this year’s International Player of the Year Award. “He’s gone head-to-head against Dan Carter and come out on top,” observed Lancaster. “Owen’s got big-match temperament and he demonstrated it again today. He controlled the game.”
The abiding memory of this autumn, though, will not be Farrell’s 17 points nor England’s stadium-rocking third try by Tuilagi following his interception of Kieran Read’s pass. It will be the expressions on English faces as their team lifted the Hillary Shield for the first time, juxtaposed with the aghast faces of New Zealanders trying to come to terms with the unthinkable.
For Kiwis this was the rugby equivalent of discovering a dead sheep in a tank of formaldehyde, with Lancaster suddenly the new Damien Hirst. To say today’s World Cup draw now has an additional frisson is to put it mildly.