Given the unavailability of half of the regular starting XV, the lack of preparation time and the fact that they played against an All Black team that should twice have been down to 14 men, to lose on almost the last play of the game at Eden Park was creditable by most normal standards.
Chris Robshaw, the England captain, eschewed any praise for the defeat by reminding everyone that only the result mattered and in the absolute sense he is correct. That was not the whole story but his and his side’s unwillingness to look for excuses, even legitimate ones, in defeat is admirable and evidence of a culture of honesty and self-criticism for which Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, has been striving.
A while back there were mutterings from some former internationals about the way in which Lancaster was approaching his task and especially the manner in which he was addressing his squad. Treating them like school kids was one accusation; brainwashing was another. To the latter I pointed out at the time that perhaps their brains needed washing after the self-indulgent farce of the Rugby World Cup 2011 campaign. As to the former, there is a fine line between organising and dictating and what is required for an experienced side is not that needed by a developing one.
The results of Lancaster’s consistent approach to selection, discipline and application were apparent in the fluidity of England’s display; far better than could realistically have been demanded. The clear messages given to players and an equally unambiguous plan of what is required from them in a given situation was at the core this performance.
Those who have called for the retention of most of the team that took the All Blacks close are flawed as it goes against Lancaster’s thinking and policies.
Consistency in selection has been one if not the biggest feature of Lancaster’s tenure because he knows of the absolute necessity of having the “magic” 600 caps that is common to all RWC-winning teams. Creating a quasi-club atmosphere, one that players strive to join, is not helped if caps are scattered around on the back of the most recent good game. To this has to be added an understanding of loyalty; this works both ways.
If he does not reintroduce those players who would have been in the starting Test XV what do you think they will think and feel given that their unavailability was due to them contesting the country’s highest domestic honour and no fault of their own.
When the team is announced for the second Test we can expect Lancaster to bring back more than half a team and rightly so.
There has been much made of what was undoubtedly an average performance by the Kiwis, some due to their own errors but more often ones forced by good line speed, fantastic competition of the breakdown and a surfeit of good front-foot ball provided from both primary possession sources.
It is true that New Zealand will be a lot better come the second Test but so will England.
The cutting edge of Danny Care and Courtney Lawes will not be welcomed by the All Blacks; Brodie Retallick might just remember Lawes’s name after he is subject to the force of his tackling.
What Lancaster thereafter has to do to improve on last weekend is to remind the team about their discipline and particularly giving away kicks in range of goal. His team also have to ensure that they win the kicking battle for much of the game, not just the first half as happened in Auckland.
If they can right those wrongs and continue to attack the Kiwis with ferocity and intelligence there is no reason why they cannot even out this series, though that will be far from easy.
England need to score tries from the limited number of chances they create, though this is made more difficult if officials do not send to the sin-bin players who cynically impede support runners.
England are not far off being a better than good team; the next two weekends can see them make the leap to very good.