They came, they saw, they conquered. Even when New Zealand were bad, England made them look good, as the All Blacks cantered to a 32-6 win at Twickenham on Saturday, handing them their second Grand Slam within four years.
The All Blacks were not at their polished best, nothing like the level they were at in Dublin and Cardiff. Yet once again, their mastery of the basics carried them through. Their killer try came as a result of a wonderful scrum which humped England's pack of its own put-in, a textbook straightening of the line in the centres, followed by a raw pace finish. The other points came mostly as a result of the continued indiscretions committed by England that New Zealand just would not commit. Then came the finishing-off tries that have been trademark for the tourists in general this November. Who says fitness is not an issue up north?
It could have been much worse for England; the danger in saying that it was only 12-6 with 20 minutes to go looms large. Dan Carter landed only five from ten kicks in total, three of them penalties he would normally bang over blindfold. A far more realistic assessment of England's display comes from the penalty count: after 20 minutes it was 5-5, after 65, England had conceded fifteen penalties to the All Blacks' seven - lest we forget, England also had four men sent to the sin-bin. England clung on to an improbable dream, but reality nabbed them in the end.
Other pertinent stats arising from this game: England scored only 26 points in three matches against the Tri-Nations and only one try. New Zealand did not concede a single try against any one of the home nations, and did not concede a single second-half point all tour. The gap has never been wider.
James Haskell said determinedly in the immediate aftermath that any England fan should know that English rugby is building something and will bounce back from this. How?
You build upon foundations, and England do have a couple of bits and bobs of raw material hanging about. Nick Kennedy did enough to earn himself an extended run at lock in the coming Six Nations, nicking a couple of opposition line-out balls and making a nuisance of himself in the loose. Toby Flood might not have covered himself in glory at fly-half, but his strong running ought to put him in the frame for a second five-eighth role outside Danny Cipriani. Danny Care is the future but revealed his greenness at two crucial moments, Delon Armitage continued to shine, and Haskell and Tom Croft did noticeable things. It's not all bad.
It's all good for New Zealand. Bar Brad Thorn, not a one of the 2008 Grand Slammers will be beyond active service come 2011. One or two might be a bit long in the tooth by then but they said that about England's squad in 2003. The biggest problem this All Black team faces is striving not to go stale in the next three years. Given the way they toy with teams for fun at times before finishing them off, that's not likely soon. Plans A, B, C, and D have all been on display this series; each time the All Blacks are challenged they seem to find a new rise within themselves. Even now, World Cup 2011 has the look of being New Zealand's for the losing.
The English both on and off the field did not lack enthusiasm for this. The haka was neither faced up to nor scorned on the pitch, it was drowned out by a fervent bout of swinging low and sweet charioting from the stands.
On the pitch, the English made a terrible nuisance of themselves around the contact area, and the defence was admirably organised. New Zealand could not garner any sort of continuity during the first quarter and the result was a scrappy affair, punctuated by authoritative blasts from Alain Rolland's whistle.
Toby Flood missed an early penalty, Riki Flutey marred England's one clean break by holding on in the tackle, Danny Care betrayed his youthful over-exuberance by diving through a ruck and handing Carter a pop at goal for a 3-0 lead, Flood replied when New Zealand were caught collapsing a scrum. New Zealand were slow out of the blocks and rattled by England's aggression, never more apparent than when Thorn gave Steve Borthwick a slap to the chops while Rolland was admonishing the pair.
Unfortunately, England - and more specifically Borthwick - followed Thorn's example. Lee Mears was sent to the bin for killing the ball, Care once again strayed offside and enabled Carter to make it 6-3. Borthwick should have set the example, instead he opted to try and push Richie McCaw away from Rolland when the Irishman wanted to speak to both of them, inflaming the volatile situation further. A tiny detail, which everybody noticed.
Haskell followed Mears to the bin for a stupid forearm charge on So'oialo, Carter landed further penalties for standing up in the scrum and handling in the ruck and the curtain came down on the half, in the second part of which England conceded six penalties and nine points.
The second half started with England's finest moment: a bullocking break by Nick Easter towards the line. Here we saw the worst of old England: Easter should have been looking for support but instead his head stayed firmly down. Here we saw the worst of new England too, when Care took the ball off the quick ruck after Easter had been brought down, but dithered over the pass while crabbing out to the right and gave New Zealand's defence the crucial moments to regroup. The All Blacks turned the ball over, Cowan broke, and was halted in mid-stride by a plain stupid high tackle from Toby Flood, who became the third yellow card recipient.
New Zealand re-asserted authority, then, once again, tore away in the final quarter. The scrum shoved England off their own ball, Jimmy Cowan pinched it, Conrad Smith straightened and found Nonu on the loop, Nonu fed Muliaina on the sprint for the corner. Simple. 17-6.
Five minutes later, after Carter had landed another, Muliaina was again the tryscorer, taking a deft chip from Carter on the fly and once again out-stripping the defence. Then Keven Mealamu broke off the back of a ruck, linked with Rokocoko, and Nonu was away, flying in from 50m. Carter made it 32-6 with the extras. Five from ten for him on the day, but six out of six for his team.
Man of the match: Honourable mentions in white shirts to Nick Kennedy and Delon Armitage. Keven Mealamu excelled, as did Ma'a Nonu and Ali Williams once more. A cut above them was Conrad Smith, who broke England's backs all day and tackled like a demon in defence.
Moment of the match: Muliaina's first try. Having struggled for so long, Smith's straight line, the loop and the finish was as perfect an execution as you will see, and dropped English heads.
Villain of the match: A few bits and pieces here as tempers frequently simmered over, but James Haskell's elbow charge on Rodney So'oialo was a little too wanton to put down to mere over-aggression.
Pens: Flood, Armitage
For New Zealand:
Tries: Muliaina 2, Nonu
Pens: Carter 5
Yellow cards: Mears (24, killing the ball), Haskell (32, elbowing), Flood (44 high tackle), Rees (76, killing the ball) - all England
England: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Jamie Noon, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Michael Lipman, 6 James Haskell, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Tim Payne.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Matt Stevens, 18 Tom Croft, 19 Tom Rees, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Danny Cipriani, 22 Dan Hipkiss.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Hikawera Elliot, 17 John Afoa, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Isaia Toeava.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Touch judges: Nigel Owens (Wales), George Clancy (Ireland)
Television match official: Tim Hayes (Wales)
Assessor: Steve Hilditch (Ireland)
By Danny Stephens