The aura of All Black invincibility was severely dented on Saturday in Wellington when Clive Woodward’s Knights in White Satin inflicted a 15-13 defeat on the Men in Black in their own backyard.
Ireland kicked off the international weekend with their 40-19 win over Tonga in Nuku’alofa, a six try performance that was marred by the injury to Eric Miller. Tonga’s Viliami Ma’asi was sent off for the incident but it would appear that the the real culprit may have been Heamani Lavaka.
In the Telstra Stadium in Sydney, the Welsh produced a gutsy performance in the course of going down 30-10 against the Wallabies and across the Indian Ocean, Scotland proved equally tenacious in their 28-19 defeat by the Springboks at Ellis Park, the game decided really by the relative kickers, Louis Koen, the Boks out-half landing six penalties and a drop goal as opposed to four penalties from Scotland’s Colin Paterson.
Further south, much further south, in Buenos Aires, the Pumas recorded a morale boosting 10-6 victory over France, the only try of a game that France were to dominate coming from Puma Jose Maria Nunez Piossek after just two minutes of play.
But the Match of the Day as it were, was always going to be the meeting in Wellington of England the team ranked number 1 in the world, and New Zealand. It was a hardly a classic but compelling stuff nonetheless with the aura of All Black invincibility severely dented when Clive Woodward’s Knights in White Satin inflicted a 15-13 defeat on the Men in Black in their own backyard.
And make no mistake about it, there wasn’t the slightest element of good fortune about this win. In fact it could be claimed that the final scoreline flattered the home side because the try they did score, should have been disallowed with Doug Howlett – in line with touch-judge Alan Lewis – ahead of the kicker (Carlos Spencer) when he floated the ball into the vacant space at the back for the game’s only try.
Remember, England arrived here at the end of a long season, with most commentators predicting that this would definitely be a game too far. Earlier in the year they had scraped a narrow win over the Blacks in Twickenham, a Blacks side shorn of their leading players and it was confidently predicted that this Blacks backline would destroy the English.
Well they didn’t.
And in a quite extraordinary period of the game, when England were reduced to 13 with the sin-binning of Neil Back and then Lawrence Dallaglio, the Blacks failed to capitalise. Failed miserably in fact when you consider that the backs-to-the-wall stuff from Martin Johnson’s side began with a Blacks put in metres from the English line.
The New Zealanders will look to take consolation from this although where they’ll find it is hard to imagine. They won everything on the stats board but precious little anywhere else and nothing on the scoreboard. They will claim that this was a first outing, combinations must be tweaked, must get the mix right, must be more precise. The usual jargon so beloved of coaches these days. But the fact is that England took everything that the Blacks could throw at them and flung it right back in their faces.
Yes, the Blacks will learn. Of course they will improve – if they don’t they’re in for a very disappointing World Cup – but if you couple this English win with what they did to the New Zealand Maori earlier in the week you get an idea of the strength of this English squad. When Johnson and his troops return to the southern hemisphere in the autumn after a good period of R&R, they will be very serious contenders to lift the World Cup.