Saturday 18 November 2017

No glory in defeat for Johnson

England 16
New Zealand 26

Mick Cleary at Twickenham

Taking solace in defeat is the default mode of losers. Martin Johnson is already on guard against that creeping malaise, that refuge of no-hopers.

His players are on the same wavelength, crestfallen by their defeat against New Zealand. Never mind the manner of it, never mind that it was eventually spirited and battling. It was a loss. Another one. That is nine in a row against the All Blacks. Not good enough.

That their next opponents the Wallabies, on a roll after their landmark victory over New Zealand in Hong Kong and a breezy outing in Cardiff, have even more strike power at their disposal than the All Blacks is not lost on Johnson.

That is why he made only fleeting reference to the positive elements in Saturday's display. He took heart, too, from the fact that his team felt the same as him: fed up and frustrated. All Black mood indeed.

"I wanted the players to be hacked off," said Johnson. "If we want to be better we can't go around being satisfied. So, let's not pat ourselves on the back. Our standards have got to be higher than that."

And so they have. The players know that they let themselves down in an opening quarter which settled the contest, New Zealand scoring two tries though wing Hosea Gear and No 8 Kieran Read, the second a real sucker-punch score, gross negligence on England's part. "A s**t 20 minutes," as Mike Tindall put it.

It looked as if we were in line for a Groundhog Day popping of deluded northern hemisphere expectations: so much froth and bubble from England, so much sharp-minded, fleet-footed execution from New Zealand.

That it did not come to pass, that by the final whistle England had clawed back a modicum of respectability and got the Twickenham crowd out of their seats, might just mean something down the line. In fact, it has to mean something against Australia or its value will be akin to a Greek euro, plummeting fast. The market has no sympathy for plucky also-rans. England's stock is still shaky.

England did register the first try conceded by New Zealand in two European tours, Dylan Hartley getting the reward for a breakneck rush out of defence initiated by Chris Ashton. However, until England turn mildly-diverting performances into victories, approval has to be deferred. Winning is what it is all about, not playing well in spurts. The players accept that.

"That was as sombre a dressing-room as I can recall," said captain Lewis Moody, substituted 13 minutes from the end, his energy levels dropping after his recent injury.

Self-belief is an intangible thing but it tends to show on the scoreboard. Gear squeezed in for his video-referral try in the 17th minute, Shontayne Hape did not five minutes from time. On such slender margins are trophies won, as Mark Cueto's disallowed 'try' in the 2007 World Cup final proved.

Even though England did improve markedly after an error-pocked opening, New Zealand were far from their sumptuous best. They got more and more ragged, more and more desperate. The sending to the sin bin of flanker Jerome Kaino in the 72nd minute might have been followed by others as the All Blacks conceded penalty after penalty to hold their line.

England, of course, helped bring about that panic. Their scrum got on top -- what a performer tighthead Dan Cole is -- and their runners began to stretch their legs, notably Ashton and Ben Foden. But England lacked the killer touch all afternoon, spilling balls in contact or snatching at openings.

Even Hape ought to have touched down cleanly, Toeava's illegal shoulder barge notwithstanding. England still need more pace in their attack, more sinew, too, in their defence. They were broken too easily, clustering in midfield and allowing Sonny Bill Williams to offload, notably in the lead-up to New Zealand's first try.

There is no magical transformation to be effected. England need to be more composed, less prone to getting rattled in defence as well as attack. "It's a nuts and bolts game," was Johnson's take, and always has been.

The basic structures need tightening, not dismantling. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

ENGLAND -- B Foden; C Ashton, M Tindall, S Hape, M Cueto (D Armitage 68); T Flood , B Youngs (D Care 72) ; A Sheridan ( D Wilson 58), S Thompson (D Hartley 51) , D Cole, C Lawes , T Palmer (D Attwood 64), T Croft, L Moody (capt) (H Fourie 67), N Easter.

NEW ZEALAND -- M Muliaina; J Rokocoko (I Toeava 58), S B Williams, M Nonu , H Gear; D Carte, A Mathewson (A Ellis 51); T Woodcock, K Mealamu, O Franks (J Afoa 75) , B Thorn, S Whitelock (A Boric 68), J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), K Read.

Ref -- R Poite (France).

Irish Independent

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