All Black juggernaut keeps driving towards perfection
England 22 New Zealand 30
So the date is named, the place is set for the crossing of rugby's Rubicon. At a little past 3.30 this coming Sunday, at the Aviva Stadium, the All Blacks will in all probability become the first international team in the professional era to accomplish the perfect season.
So far this season they have won 13 Test matches from 13 in one giant buttressing of their awesome hegemony since winning the 2011 World Cup on home turf. 'The most dominant team in the history of the world,' they called themselves on their team whiteboard. We had better start believing it.
True, New Zealand looked passably mortal for the hour that separated their second and third Twickenham tries. But for a couple of line-out steals as England's continuity dissolved, and the most sterling second-row shift by Sam Whitelock on the occasion of his 50th cap, the narrative as the men in black boarded Aer Lingus flight 173 to Ireland yesterday might not have been nearly so seamless.
And yet it might also be considered that despite Chris Robshaw sporting an eye more hideously empurpled than if he had gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson, and Dylan Hartley hurling himself so hard at Richie McCaw that he bruised his lung, New Zealand still prevailed by eight points.
One moment crystallised the difference between the sides. Switching from right flank to left with quicksilver slickness, as they sought to erase England's two-point advantage with 15 minutes left, Ma'a Nonu offloaded to Julian Savea with a pass best characterised as a magician's sleight of hand. It was so subtle, yet so spontaneous, that it made the England backs' interplay look leaden.
The reaction from head coach Steve Hansen was tellingly understated. "When you play like we do, things like that are happening every week," he said.
"It was not really a 'wow' move for us." It was not exactly a 'wow' performance by most All Black measurements either.
Hansen described his players' discipline as "average" in their gifting of five penalties to Owen Farrell, while McCaw lamented that the display was "by no means perfect".
Even Kieran Read, by common consent the finest player on the planet this year, was guilty of a schoolboy error when he knocked on to allow Joe Launchbury to dive over for England's solitary try. But then Read had also hinted at the depth of New Zealand's tenacity when he highlighted their capacity to "fight until the 80th minute, to go to those places and grind out the tough ones". Ultimately, this sheer cussedness proved their crucial distinction.
Just once in 34 matches since reclaiming the Webb Ellis Trophy have they been vanquished and much chatter focuses upon whether the All Black juggernaut tearing a swathe across northern Europe are the greatest team in history. In the consummate Read, the granite-willed McCaw, and the tirelessly scrapping blindside Liam Messam, they clearly possess a peerless back-row.
Savea, the match-winner against England with his two tries, and a wing who somehow combines his explosive bursts with his diagnosis as an asthmatic, is likewise a singular talent. That slippery gazelle Israel Dagg is a full-back to die for, while on the right Charles Piutau produced, aged 21, the pace and power to justify his billing as the 'Auckland Express'.
The dynamism of Piutau best illustrated, perhaps, why the All Blacks endure as such an imperishable behemoth. With two tries in Paris and a Twickenham debut of poise and polish, the youngster has been blooded effortlessly into a side that also contains four men with 100 caps or more. Therein lies the defining Kiwi blend of young bucks and grizzled old hands – we easily forget that while New Zealand's starting XV at Twickenham boasted a combined 842 caps, versus England's 314, they also had an average age of only 26.
There is a quiet but incipient changing of the guard. McCaw, at 32 already past the customary peak for an openside flanker, cannot go on forever, even with 123 caps and more tireless efforts at the breakdown in the face of English resistance.
Dan Carter, marking his century of appearances, had never looked more vulnerable than when he was taken off after 23 minutes, an Achilles problem adding to his litany of recent injuries.
Such was the conviction with which Aaron Cruden filled the breach that even Carter's place in the starting line-up no longer appears guaranteed. By the time England arrive for a three-Test tour of New Zealand next summer, the All Blacks could have embarked upon the post-Carter generation. But it is testament to their depth that such ostensibly momentous change is all but imperceptible in the eventual outcome.
Intrinsically, this side might not be the best or the greatest, but by virtue of their ceaseless pursuit of 80-minute perfection they are as close to invincible as sport has ever seen. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
England – M Brown; C Ashton, J Tomkins (A Goode 76), B Twelvetrees, B Foden; O Farrell (T Flood 67), L Dickson (B Youngs 65); J Marler (M Mullan 76), D Hartley (T Youngs 50), D Cole (D Wilson 76); J Launchbury (G Parling 46), C Lawes; T Wood, C Robshaw, B Vunipola (B Morgan 57).
New Zealand – I Dagg; C Piutau (R Crotty 71), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; D Carter (A Cruden 25), A Smith (T Kerr-Barlow 71); T Woodcock (W Crockett 40), K Mealamu (D Coles 62), O Franks (C Faumuina 42); B Retallick (L Romano 69), S Whitelock; L Messam (S Luatua 67), R McCaw, K Read.
REF – C Joubert (South Africa)