England unleash a stunning performance
RUGBY: England 38 New Zealand 21:The pool draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup will be conducted in the Tate Modern this afternoon, an appropriate venue in which to contemplate England’s startling weekend masterpiece. Rarely, if ever, has this ancient black and white contest seen such vivid splashes of colour, transforming a previously drab autumn canvas. If sporting excellence qualifies as art, this was as fine an exhibition as anything seen in south-west London for a decade or more.
Suddenly all the world’s leading teams will be scrambling to avoid the revitalised hosts, rather than the other way round. Stuart Lancaster’s side could yet draw New Zealand and Wales but any hint of an inferiority complex has disappeared. If a young England team with only 200-odd caps can secure both a record score and margin of victory over a top-class All Black combination, what on earth might they achieve with three more years of collective Test experience?
It is this spirit of renewed optimism around England that will delight Lancaster and his coaches as much as anything. The world champions will surely be back, forewarned and refocused, but their aura has been punctured by their heaviest defeat to a northern hemisphere rival in history. If it is too soon to describe England as world-beaters, there is now no doubt that, under Lancaster’s calm stewardship, they are heading in the right direction.
Now the disappointing, narrow defeats by Australia and South Africa can be framed in a more progressive context. It is only four years since England, in the early days of Martin Johnson’s managerial era, faced their three big southern hemisphere foes in the same order and lost by an aggregate score of 102-26. If you had told New Zealanders a week ago they would be blown away by an England team playing with All Black style, clarity, commitment and self-belief, they would have diagnosed a severe case of delusion.
So what happened? For all Richie McCaw’s magnanimous praise for the victors, his team were barely recognisable from the side which had previously been unbeaten for 20 Tests.
The virus that laid low many of the tour party last week must have had some effect but not one New Zealander used that as an excuse. To do so would have been to underplay the inroads England made at the breakdown, the pressure exerted by their defensive line speed and the mistakes made by normally impeccable performers such as Dan Carter and Conrad Smith.
The easy gag that McCaw’s six-month sabbatical began at half-time also dissolves under serious scrutiny. Having allowed New Zealand back to within a point after leading 15-0 early in the second half, England could easily have folded. Instead they hit back harder, Brad Barritt ripping through the gap left by Smith’s assumption the ball would go wide and exchanging high-speed passes with Manu Tuilagi.
When Tuilagi then brushed aside Carter and McCaw to set up Chris Ashton for his first Test try in 14 months, it was further proof of the strength of character Lancaster and his coaches have worked so hard to instil.