Rusty English go down fighting
ENGLAND 16 NEW ZEALAND 26
Defeat will no doubt hurt, because the turmoil of missed opportunities and the nagging doubt that this might have been a whole lot better always churn the stomach.
Having confessed in the build-up that he is beset, as a manager, by rugby thoughts that never bothered him as a player and captain, do not expect Martin Johnson to be sleeping like a baby in the days to come.
But in the context of this being the start of a long haul to the World Cup, this was full of encouragement. Toby Flood played with authority and courage in his personal duel against the best player in the outside-half position on the planet. The England front row scrummaged emphatically and there was an enthusiasm and an obvious appetite for the ball in open space that provided plenty of evidence that the country most associated with suffocating the global game is filling her lungs on the style of the new age.
Nick Easter may have knocked on a couple of times, but as the largest symbol of up-the-jumper he gave notice of an overhaul, looking to complete his trademark thrusts with a popped pass. Courtney Lawes may have been bowled over a couple of times by Brad Thorn, but the youngster gave the old bruiser notice of his own that England are full of energy and dynamism.
At the start it was a contest of coatings: England's rust of five months without playing together against New Zealand's shell of fatigue after playing last week and travelling halfway around the world. If these were the imperfect conditions of the outset, England appeared less constricted as they launched themselves with confidence in open play. Ben Foden saw more of the ball in the opening 10 minutes than Bob Hiller saw in two decades in the 1960s and 70s.
There was a glimpse of the threat that might one day be posed when Chris Ashton flicked a pass under real pressure to Foden, but the trouble for the full-back of the modern age was that no clear-cut chance came in attack in the opening surge. Nor in the closing moments of the first half, when England's most patient and disciplined build-up resulted in him crossing the goal-line, but being unable to set the ball on the ground.
The reason for the failure to release any of the back three was a certain imprecision born of that rustiness: Easter knocked on the first off-load from Mike Tindall; Steve Thompson's first line-out was not straight.
New Zealand struggled to do anything more than tackle in this period, not that they were in any way inefficient here. But they could not put their hands on the ball. When they did, however, it only required one of Sonny Bill Williams' -- hands, that is -- to change the course of the game.
His input came after clean possession from the lineout, and from this primary source the giant centre hammered forward and then passed in his unique way to Jerome Kaino. The No 6 behaved in a way that could easily be alien to any other in that shirt. His is a role often confined to dark places and limited space, but here he was in midfield, veering in and then out to deliver a long pass to Hosea Gear, who took on the tackle of Ashton and powered over, tight against the touchline.
In a matter of seconds, an entire array of skills had been placed on display. New Zealand were suddenly on fire. Flood reduced the arrears with his first of three penalties, but it seemed the gulf in innate talent was glaringly wide.
Andrew Sheridan, for example, simply did not see an overlap outside him and crashed on when sweet hands would have led to a try. Tindall delivered a pass to Lewis Moody at the end of a move that had try written all over it until the ball floated meekly from the centre's hands into the soil. Later, Flood would miss a simple penalty punt to touch when it was important to keep the temperature high.
Again, there was a contrast. If, in general, the All Blacks scrum was uncomfortable all day, when it needed to be solid close to the England line it did its work, allowing Gear to run in from his wing and Kieran Read to feed on the healthy crumbs and stretch over. New Zealand had scored two tries straight from set-pieces in the space of three minutes and the game was looking decidedly ugly for the home team.
It ended almost beautifully. If England conceded nine more points to the boot of Carter, for the rest of the game they would grow in daring and stature. The highlight came in the second half, when Ashton made a mark in his own 22, took the kick immediately to himself and launched a counter that was continued by Flood and finished by Hartley with a short-range burst of which any New Zealander would have been proud. The hooker, of course, used to be one, and his spat later with Thorn seemed to suggest it has not been forgotten back home.
England were not distracted by such action off the ball. They simply got on with the job of trying to convert their possession into points. Their pressure was such that Kaino was eventually sent to the sin-bin for preventing release, but the end result was that they did not score. And they lost.
In the long run, however, they may look back on this as a positive stage of their development. Just as the All Blacks came here from defeat to Australia, so England have the chance to put themselves back on track immediately. By the end of November a formidable force may be several steps nearer completion and the pain of day one may give way to satisfaction.
Scorers -- England: D Hartley try; T Flood 3 pens, con New Zealand: H Gear, K Read try each; Carter 4 pens, 2 cons.
England: B Foden; C Ashton, M Tindall, S Hape, M Cueto (D Armytage, 67); T Flood, B Youngs (D Care, 71); N Easter, L Moody (capt) (H Fourie, 66), T Croft, T Palmer (D Attwood, 63), C Lawes, D Cole, S Thompson (D Hartley, 50), A Sheridan (D Wilson, 57).
New Zealand: M Muliaina, J Rokocoko (I Toeava, 57), SB Williams, M Nonu, H Gear, D Carter, A Mathewson (A Ellis, 51), K Read, R McCaw (capt), J Kaino, S Whitelock (A Boric, 68), B Thorn, O Franks (J Afoa, 75), K Mealamu, T Woodcock.
Referee: R Poite (France)