Saturday, November 21, 2009

All Blacks beat England in dour test
By MARC HINTON in London -

The All Blacks rumble on and poor old England stumble on, though at least Martin Johnson's men were able to make a lot more of a game of it at Twickenham today than their critics were predicting.

In the end the All Blacks, still playing as though they've left their handbrake on, were comfortable 19-6 winners as they kept alive a couple of remarkable records in these autumn internationals.

They still haven't lost in one of these November test matches since Graham Henry took charge in 2004, and they kept their line intact for another international in a run which stretches back to 2006. Defensively, these All Blacks are right on top of their game.

The same can't quite be said of the black attack, which once again managed just one try in 80 minutes of rugby, and despite a succession of promising raids, the final pass or the key break just couldn't be made. Once again you were left with a suspicion that despite their success, these New Zealanders still have a long way to go on the improvement chart.

Still, this is test rugby. And as the All Blacks told us in the buildup, it's about winning first and foremost. By doing so with a degree of comfort today the New Zealanders not only retained the Hillary Shield but left English rugby with another week of naval-gazing.

You suspect it won't be as bad, or as mad, as it was post last week's 16-9 win over Argentina, for the English contributed plenty to a pretty competitive test match. But they really were a distant second in this contest and their limitations on attack were once again severely exposed.

Apart from one break from a messy scrum in the second half by Tom Croft, the English never really looked like scoring.

Still, at least they weren't booed by their own fans this week. And that might be the only consolation Johnson and his men take from a match that was mostly about respect for them, rather than any real chance of winning.

On a milestone occasion, with Mils Muliaina becoming the second most capped All Black of all time and Dan Carter passing Andrew Mehrtens as the greatest points-scorer in All Black history, the New Zealanders had it all to play for.

Muliaina responded with a splendid match too, with the fullback joining his skipper Richie McCaw as the outstanding figure on the park. The All Black No 15 was a constant attacking threat, and looked back to his best. Zac Guildford also had another promising test over on the right wing, where he very much won his individual battle with Ugo Monye.

Up front the All Black scrum had a wobble or two, the lineout functioned smoothly again and Kieran Red weighed in with another strong test at No 8.

Still, if you had read the British press in the buildup to this fourth test of the All Blacks' tour, the New Zealanders had only to arrive at Twickenham to maintain their perfect record on this trip.

The English, their critics reckoned, were so out of sorts, bereft of either the nous or the skills to break down the All Blacks, that it was thought it wouldn't be so much a game as a shame.

A week earlier the English had been booed off Twickenham at halftime by their own fans when the scores were locked at 9-9 against Argentina, but seven days later they got a much more wholesome reception as they jogged off locked at 6-6 and very much in this encounter with an All Blacks side still searching for its attacking A game.

England lost Joe Worsley in just the third minute with an ankle injury, but the early disruption didn't appear to affect Johnson's men to any great degree as they managed to stifle the All Blacks attacking game through the opening quarter.

After Carter missed a handy early penalty attempt – the Kiwi sharpshooter had a pretty average first half with the boot by his high standards – Jonny Wilkinson made no mistake with his opening penalty a little after a quarter of an hour of action.

And that's how the scoring played out for the half. Carter drew the All Blacks level, Wilkinson nudged England back in front again and Carter evened the ledger again, though he also missed a pretty kickable effort late in the half that should have given his team a halftime lead.

The All Blacks looked far the more likely on attack throughout the opening half, but found the final pass or the final tackle behind them as they failed to cash in on a half-dozen or so useful forays. Muliana went the closest when he was just bundled into touch by Monye's cover tackle midway through the spell.

The English were forced to make nearly twice as many tackles in the half, but to their credit they nailed all the ones that counted as they went into the sheds knowing they were very much in this game.

And so it continued in the second spell. The All Blacks constantly threatening, the English disrupting, clinging on. Something had to give.The decisive score of the second half came, inevitably, to the All Blacks shortly after the quarter-hour mark when, finally, the finishing touches were applied.

The forwards had rumbled it up beautifully, going three, four phases and when ball went left Sitiveni Sivivatu popped a great pass between two defenders, McCaw played hot potato and halfback Jimmy Cowan was over. Carter's sideline conversion, following his early penalty, put the New Zealanders out to 16-6.

There was time for Carter to add one more penalty on a mixed afternoon for the superboot, and for that cast-iron All Black defence to repel one or two more raids from the home side.

And that was that. The All Blacks continue to cut, if not a swathe, certainly a pretty comfortable path through the north once again. France now awaits, and what shapes as a true battle of the hemispheres. It will not be this comfortable in Marseille.

England 6 (Jonny Wilkinson 2 pens), New Zealand 19 (Jimmy Cowan try; Dan Carter 4 pens, con). Ht: 6-6.

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