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Premiership Rugby

Courageous England win at the ‘Cake Tin’

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

A host of missed penalties from All Black first five-eighth Carlos Spencer cost his side dear in the Westpac Stadium wind, while the reliable Wilkinson mastered the elements to send over all but one of his five penalty attempts from far and wide.

It was the spectacle that rugby fans the world over had been waiting for, and while the heavy-handed approach of Australian referee Stuart Dickinson may have sucked much flow out of the game, lovers of forward play and sporting endeavour will have lapped up the fiery feast on show.

Four penalties and a drop-goal from Wilkinson saw the English home, although the critics may well make much of the fact that the tourists again relied on the boot of their youthful talisman, while the All Blacks crafted the only try of a tight and nervy game.

It was fullback Doug Howlett who scored it midway through the second half, but the dye had been cast by then after Spencer's horror show with the boot, the Blues No.10 hitting over two penalties and a conversion, but sending a series of vital penalties wide of the uprights.

Whether or not All Black coach John Mitchell can afford to persist with the supremely-talented ball-player in such a tight match must surely now be up for discussion, although despite drifting in and out of the match, he did weave his magic on occasion with ball in hand.

But the story of this match will be the steely English defence, which survived a 10-minute period in the second half with only 13 men on the field after the sin-binnings of back rowers Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio for killing the ball. Despite coming under siege on their own line, the rearguard did not buckle, as the hosts failed to score a single point during that key spell.

New Zealand dominated the line-outs and made some sound breaks, but their speedy backline were starved of ball, debutants Ma'a Nonu and especially Joe Rokocoko consigned to mere bystanders for much of the game, as lock Chris Jack and openside Richie McCaw came to the fore.

In a keen English pack they had able adversaries, with Martin Johnson and Steve Thompson putting in massive performances, while Dallaglio and wing Ben Cohen were also among the standouts.

In the swirling wind, England pressured right from the kick-off, with Spencer having his clearance charged down by Ben Kay near his own line, but that was as near as the English were to come to the whitewash in the opening 40 minutes, as the hosts set up camp in the England half.

An early English foray into All Black territory down the left reaped rewards however when Wilkinson kicked his first penalty from out wide, negotiating the wind well to give his side the lead.

Opposite number Spencer erred from his first attempt moments later in a tense atmosphere, before composing himself to strike his second one over – this after the ball had fallen over twice, eating into his allotted 60 seconds.

In a half littered with penalties – mainly against the defending visitors – the All Blacks hogged the ball in an attempt to strangle the English resolve, but some stout defending, especially in the backs, kept the hosts at bay, despite Ralph and Howlett both coming close down the left and right wings respectively.

A striking facet was the ease with which Chris Jack and Ali Williams got the better of Martin Johnson and Ben Kay in the early line-outs, with some wayward throwing by England's powerful hooker Steve Thompson not helping his side's cause as they searched for some degree of equilibrium in the possession stakes.

Despite New Zealand dominating territorially, England did have one or two breaks into the opposing half, and after Reuben Thorne was judged to have held Kyran Bracken after a tackle, Wilkinson beat the elements and drilled a massive penalty over from the right touchline, claiming a 6-3 lead despite his side being almost entirely on the back foot.

A last-ditch clearance from wing Jason Robinson again saved England as Spencer broke down the right after a Justin Marshall pick-and-go from the base of the scrum, but with five minutes left in the opening half Spencer levelled the scores with a penalty after Neil Back crossed the off-side line on the 22, right in front of his own posts.

And the hosts would have gone into the interval with a 9-6 advantage had Spencer not fired wildly right of the posts with a late penalty after Bracken failed to roll away from the tackle, but he missed, sending the teams in at 6-6.

But where Spencer had failed, Wilkinson succeeded, sending over his third penalty in the opening exchanges of the second half to take the lead for his side after Jack had not released the ball in a tackle, a booming penalty bissecting the posts as punishment for his indiscretion.

Jack was again in the thick of things as he spectacularly charged down a Wilkinson clearance in the England 22, but the covering Mike Tindall defused the ball in the dead ball area.

And just when the game looked like it might be developing as a contest, referee Dickinson reduced the English to 13 men with the sin-binnings of Back and Dallaglio in quick succession for killing the ball – Back's offence in the New Zealand 22, while Dallaglio's was an altogether more cynical effort right under his own posts, after a quick All Black counter-attack which should have developed into a try.

Despite the constant barrage of attacks, the English defence miraculously held firm with two men down, No.8 Rodney So'oialo going closest as he crossed the line but was judged by TMO Peter Marshall to have made a double movement.

Back to their full compliment of players, the English pressured up front, and Wilkinson nudged them six points clear with a superbly-taken penalty into the wind from the right touchline, judging the gale to perfection.

Moments later, after some serious pressure and a series of rucks in the New Zealand 22, he dropped back into the pocket and struck a drop-goal with his right foot, as his side played an advantage from an earlier penalty.

Just when it looked like the Jonny Wilkinson show might send England further away from the home side, the All Blacks registered the only try of the match, Spencer showing brilliant vision from halfway to spot that England did not have a fullback.

His long and high kick was chased by fullback Howlett, who – despite possibly being in an off-side position at the time of the kick – was always the favourite to beat the retreating Dallaglio to the loose ball, Caleb Ralph also in close attendance.

Spencer converted, and the tension was palpable for the remaining 20 minutes as England hung on by three points, refere Dickinson struggling to exert authority at the contact area as he awarded a string of penalties against both sides, sapping the match of flow as the respective forwards battled for their cause.

But with 10 minutes left on the clock, Spencer was presented with a golden chance to seal the game, his penalty being bludgeoned heavily to the left of the posts in a passage of play which told the story of this match.

Wilkinson too finally showed that he is human with a late miss from the halfway line, but having survived a nervy last few moments, England held on for a historic win.

Does this now mean that the world rugby tide is changing? Does the north now rule the roost?

While that might still be a bone of contention after such a tight see-saw match, one thing is for sure, the English have proved that they have grit aplenty, while the All Blacks' skill out wide still poses a definite danger to any side on the planet.

Bring on the World Cup!

Man of the match: Despite Jonny Wilkinson's masterclass with the boot, this – like the Grand Slam win in Dublin in March – was one for the forwards, and there was no more exemplary a leader than captain Martin Johnson, with the Leicester lock's massive defence being vital during their spell with 13 men. Steve Thompson and Lawrence Dallaglio also battled well, but Johnson gets our vote. On the All Black side, Richie McCaw exerted his usual big influence, while lock Chris Jack was magnificent in the line-outs, stealing English ball on a number of occasions.

Moment of the match: The 10-minute spell of solid defence when England were down to 13-man was the segment on which ths game hinged. They held out, and the rest is history.

Villain of the match: A blatantly cynical killing of the ball at a ruck under his own posts from England No.8 Lawrence Dallaglio saw him rightly binned for the professional foul. Some whistle-happy play from referee Stuart Dickinson also sees him as a contender, but Dallaglio's deliberate intent was plain for all to see, so he gets the vote.

The scorers:

For New Zealand:Try: HowlettCon: SpencerPens: Spencer 2

For England:Pens: Wilkinson 4DG: Wilkinson

The teams:

New Zealand: 15 Doug Howlett, 14 Joe Rokocoko (Mils Muliaina, 72), 13 Ma'a Nonu, 12 Tana Umaga, 11 Caleb Ralph, 10 Carlos Spencer, 9 Justin Marshall (Steve Devine, 46), 8 Rodney So'oialo (Jerry Collins, 73), 7 Richard McCaw, 6 Reuben Thorne (captain), 5 Ali Williams, 4 Chris Jack, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Anton Oliver (Keven Mealamu, 56), 1 Dave Hewett.Unused replacements: 17 Carl Hoeft, 18 Brad Thorn, 21 Daniel Carter.

England: 15 Josh Lewsey, 14 Jason Robinson, 13 Will Greenwood, 12 Mike Tindall, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Kyran Bracken, 8 Lawrence Dallaglio, 7 Neil Back, 6 Richard Hill (Joe Worsley, 72), 5 Ben Kay, 4 Martin Johnson (captain), 3 Jason Leonard (Phil Vickery, 40), 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Graham Rowntree.Unused replacements: 16 Dorian West, 18 Steve Borthwick, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Paul Grayson, 22 Dan Luger.

Yellow card(s): Neil Back (England, 46-56), Lawrence Dallaglio (England, 48-58)

Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)Touch judges: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Matt Goddard (Australia)Television Match Official: Peter Marshall (Australia)

By Mark Smith

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