England 6-19 New Zealand, Twickenham, November 21
Still more questions than answers
Graham Jenkins
November 21, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson after the New Zealand loss, England v New Zealand, Twickenham, England, November 21, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson and captain Steve Borthwick have plenty of food for thought ahead of the Six Nations © Getty Images

England's brave yet fruitless display against New Zealand at Twickenham may not have been the blackest day of Martin Johnson's reign as many had predicted but a dark cloud remains over the troubled side.

There was hunger, passion and determination where previously there has been a void but there remain huge question marks surrounding England's ability to be direct and incisive in attack. One try in their three autumn outings tell the story. This side lack a cutting edge and a creative force to accompany the power and harness the talent.

Last Saturday's win over Argentina felt like a defeat, and while there is no escaping the fact that England were second best against the All Blacks there are at least some positives to build on ahead of the start of their Six Nations campaign in a few months time. While the doomsayers predicted the worst, England saw this as an opportunity to silence their critics and threw everyting they had at the All Blacks. But ultimately they lacked the technical prowess and composure to take advantage of New Zealand side there for the taking and the visitors held them at arms length - knowing full well the hosts did not have the capacity to really frighten them or hurt them.

Arguably England's biggest positive from this game, and the entire autumn series, is the form of flanker Lewis Moody. Finally free of his injury woes, the Tigers openside is in a rich vein of form and his impressive and crowd-pleasing work rate along with his willingness to lead from the front make him the obvious choice to take on the captaincy when Steve Borthwick's position is inevitably reviewed at the end of the year.

England's high-tempo start was also incredibly refreshing and the attempts by Moody and colossal wing Matt Banahan to leave a lasting impression on the All Blacks' defence suggested the Large Hadron Collider experiment had been re-located from Switzerland - such was the ferocity of their challenges. Veteran Simon Shaw also belied his years with an energised display, a nuisance at the breakdown and a battering ram in the loose, but by now Johnson should be looking at the bigger picture and he is unlikely to find use for a 38-year-old at the Rugby World Cup in two years time.

The under-fire coaches must also be praised for restoring the side's confidence in the face of widespread criticism. As a team they could not be faulted for their effort or their faith in their ability but sadly that was never going to be enough.

There was quick ball and urgency but fly-half Jonny Wilkinson failed to orchestrate proceedings. The veteran No.10 tackled himself into the ground as usual but he was guilty of playing too deep and his game management is also set to be called into question. His goal-kicking remains a key asset in England's arsenal but Wilkinson desperately needs to issue a reminder that he remains a creative threat. England's attacking shortcomings are Johnson's biggest worry and as much as he welcomed Wilkinson's return to the international stage earlier this month he may be forced into a re-think and give youth its chance.

England's penalty count reared its ugly head again and had New Zealand's Dan Carter not had a day to forget with the boot then this game would have been dead a long time before the final whistle. As it was, heading into the final quarter England were still in this game and were perhaps guilty of hitting the panic button a little too early but either way their somewhat frantic efforts were easily dealt with by the All Blacks.

It is a sign of New Zealand's true class that they were too strong for England despite being a shadow of the side that brushed Johnson's team aside this time last year. The ever-influential Dan Carter forgot his kicking boots today and had he been on-form then this game would perhaps have been over a long time before the final whistle. Missed kicks are a rarity where the Cantabrian is concerned - especially simple ones - so this game is a rare collector's item. Sadly Carter will no doubt rather forget the day he eclipsed Andrew Merhtens at the top of New Zealand's all-time points scorers list.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry will no doubt have expected an improved England performance but he would have been surprised by the failure of his big names to inspire great things. Rested or suspended for the forgettable clash with Italy in Rome last weekend, the likes of captain Richie McCaw and Carter were not at their best although the skipper did have a crucial say in his side's try. This performance will do well to kick the country's football team off the back pages following their Fifa World Cup qualification last week. A huge step up will be required if they are to maintain their unbeaten run in Marseille next Saturday.

© Scrum.com

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