Against all odds
November 20, 2009
Fran Cotton was in the 1973 side that beat the All Blacks © PA Photos
England will certainly not be overburdened by expectation when they go into battle with New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday. Current betting odds give them a better chance of beating the All Blacks than Gordon Brown has of winning the next election, although not by much, but that is about it.
This isn't quite as unusual a state of affairs as we might think. With the golden era between the early nineties and 2003 still dominating memories, it is easy to forget that England usually do start as second favourites against the All Blacks - and with good reason. There have been only six wins in 32 meetings and England were second best even during their greatest years, with the All Blacks leading by six wins to three between 1991 and 2003.
Upsets can happen, though. Steve Borthwick's team look no more implausible than the England touring team led by Bristol hooker John Pullin who pitched up at Eden Park, Auckland on September 15, 1973. They had already lost 9-0 at home to the All Blacks that year, then followed up by winning two games out of four in the Five Nations - enough for a 20 per cent share in the only five-way tie in the tournament's history, with all 10 matches won by the home team. They had not expected to visit New Zealand. The tour was a short-notice expedient following the cancellation of a scheduled visit to Argentina.
England's warm up had consisted of a 13-12 win over Fiji in Suva - not then a full cap international - and defeats by Wellington, Taranaki and Canterbury. True, they had won in South Africa a year earlier, but that was after a spectacularly successful series of provincial matches in which all opposition had been swept aside.
Fran Cotton recalled: "All week the whole of New Zealand had written us off, which smacked a little of over-confidence which we could use to our advantage".
The outcome was described by New Zealand doyen Terry McLean: "The All Blacks were hammered, outfought forward. And this, I tell you is no fairy story. New Zealand, moreover, were outthought in general tactics."
England played the first half into a stiff wind and fell behind to a Grant Batty try, but from the start controlled the setpieces, with the All Black front row struggling and Chris Ralston outjumping Sam Strahan in the line-out. They struck back when scrum-half Jan Webster broke and centre Peter Preece, one of four Coventry players in the back five, created a try for the fifth man - wing Peter Squires.Full-back Peter Rossborough converted from a wide angle.
A score for Ian Hurst converted by Bob Lendrum gave the All Blacks a 10-6 advantage, but England took full advantage of the conditions after the break. Outside-half Alan Old's tactical kicking drove home the forward advantage. Tries by Stack Stevens and Tony Neary, both following errors by Lendrum, who was playing his only test, clinched the 16-10 victory. Cotton recalled it as 'just the sort of game that the All Blacks have used for years - but for once it was an English side in the driving seat'.
Looking back, it does not seem quite such a shock. The All Blacks had not played an international for seven months and while they still had 10 of the team who had beaten France the previous February, those missing included such formidable performers as Joe Karam, Bob Burgess, Peter Whiting and Alan Sutherland.
Six of the eight England forwards had played in the victory in the South Africa - and the two newcomers were Cotton and Roger Uttley, names that still resonate today. So too had the half-backs. Webster, quick, diminutive and invariably described as 'mercurial' was among the common factors in England's three most memorable victories of the 1970s - over South Africa, New Zealand and, in 1974, Wales. This was perhaps his day of days, when his darting runs and astute kicking completely outshone opposite number Sid Going. Yet Webster only played 11 internationals across five seasons, a prime victim of England's selectorial incoherence.
His partner Alan Old, elder brother of fast bowler Chris, also knew all about selectorial vagaries. This was his first test since South Africa. In the interim England had fielded three other outside-halves - John Finlan, Dick Cowman and the converted centre Martin Cooper.
One other factor should be noted - the date. One clear indication from history is that for England to have a real shot at beating New Zealand there has to be a three in the year. Their record in such years is five wins - in 1936, 1973, 1983, 1993 and 2003 - to three defeats. In other years it is a single win, the 31-28 victory over an experimental New Zealand team at Twickenham in autumn 2002 - against 23 defeats. Roll on 2013, England might say.