Friday 24 November 2017

Response to adversity proves Kiwis at full power

New Zealand just one win away from an unblemished year, says Michael Aylwin

They rolled into town with extravagant claims about their pre-eminence in world sport ringing in their ears. And the All Blacks rolled out with more sweat on the brow than they are used to, more blood and bruises, but still untouchable – in this sport, at least.

Because this was England at their best, missing from last season's victory against the same opponents only a Manu Tuilagi to bust the game open. It was by a country mile their best performance of this autumn. These days they seem to be inspired every time they take on these sinister invaders in black, which is not a bad habit to acquire.

The All Blacks were staring down the barrel of their first defeat of the year, their first defeat since that thrashing from last year. England held the lead entering the final quarter. It seemed so unlikely after the start the All Blacks had bolted off to.

Two brilliant, effervescent tries of the kind only they can produce looked to have secured them the game within the first quarter. Kieran Read produced a first 20 minutes that must be just about the closest to perfection that can have been witnessed by anyone anywhere. Shades of Dan Carter in the second Lions Test of 2005. The industry, the physicality, the deftness of touch and then – this being the quality that elevates him beyond the rest – the wit. He was the walking embodiment of the team he represents, the running, grappling, finessing embodiment of it. The best team in world sport, indeed.

But are they? They have, if not a weakness, a deficiency in one department, the front five. We are talking here about the heaving, sweating, ugly parts of this game, the kind of thing that should be beneath a team of such transcendent skill, but must not be. When it comes to the high-impact stuff and the athleticism, there's no shortfall – quite the opposite. Both locks are extraordinary athletes, for example. But in the close-quarter, slow-burning stuff the England front five, which is far from the most battle-hardened or experienced, gave them a lesson for the next 20 minutes.

If so much of the talk was of Carter's big 100, another man even further down the road had a horrible first half. Tony Woodcock did not return for the second half, laid low by a hamstring and his propping partner, Owen Franks, was off within a few minutes of the restart.

New Zealand did manage to wrestle back some of the initiative in the second half – Sam Whitelock and Keven Mealamu in particular upping their games after the break. Wyatt Crockett, bar one bone-headed body check on Chris Ashton, also contributed to the upturn in energy. And Richie McCaw, to complete the quartet of centurions, was a different man after the break.

They'll say it is the mark of a team at the peak of its powers and they'd be right. To respond when things are not going as planned. Nevertheless, they fell behind before they responded properly – by which we mean in the way only they can, by which we mean doing more than trying to put out the fires.

Ma'a Nonu stepped up to become the latest All Black to take a game beyond the reach of mere mortals. His off-load to Julian Savea for the clinching score was the kind of flashing skill not seen from anyone in a white shirt, for all their energy and possession.

So the All Blacks move on to win number 13, one away from a perfect, unblemished year. They are not yet closing in on any world-record unbeaten runs, as they were this time last year, when their unbeaten streak was ended on 20 by that extraordinary performance from England, but a win against Ireland next weekend will make them the first team of the professional era to win all their matches in a calendar year.

Will Carter be there for game 101? He limped off midway through the first half. We have seen too little of him of late. He was shielded during the week and now this, the day he reached his special milestone compromised by a dodgy hamstring.

With all the talk over New Zealand's standing in world sport, what about the standing of Carter in the pantheon of rugby's greats? He has winners medals galore, including the biggest of them all, but if only he had been granted a Jonny Wilkinson moment of some kind in the last World Cup.

Meanwhile, if Read was flirting with perfection for 20 minutes here, that performance of Carter's against the Lions in 2005 remains the closest to it we have seen in the modern era. Is there such a thing as perfection?

Such petty considerations were cast aside in the wake of that game to award him 10 out of 10 in the player ratings, followed by a big article asking whether two 23-year-olds – Carter and Roger Federer – could possibly be the greatest we have seen from their respective sports. Too early to say was the rather boring conclusion. It's not too early any more.


Sunday Independent

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