Stuart Lancaster’s eventful first year as England coach ended on an unexpected and remarkable high with a record victory over world champions New Zealand.
When Lancaster stepped into the middle of the wreckage that was English rugby on 8 December last year, few could have envisaged a result or a performance like it. Even on Saturday morning, it was a stretch given the All Blacks were on a 20-Test unbeaten run and England were beginning to feel the heat after successive defeats to Australia and South Africa.
But Lancaster’s callow team delivered one of the great England displays. The All Blacks, who some have called the best team ever, could not live with the thunderous intensity.
Owen Farrell kicked England into a 15-0 lead before their character was tested when the All Blacks hit back with two converted tries in three minutes.
England’s response was emphatic. Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi scored in quick succession before Freddie Burns came off the bench to kick two penalties on his debut.
While deservedly proud, Lancaster also stressed the need for England to use this victory as a launchpad for the Six Nations and beyond to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“It’s the highest point, isn’t it? We’ve played the world champions, who were unbeaten in 20 matches, and we’ve put in a performance that has beaten them fair and square,” Lancaster said.
“To put in that type of performance under that sort of pressure after the scrutiny of the last two weeks, is fantastic really.
“It was less than 11 months ago we changed the direction of travel for England rugby, to build a team for the future but also wanting to win in the here and now.
“Sometimes it takes a win to show that, and the most pleasing thing is it has given a clear view of the direction we are going. We have got to make sure we back up now. As a coaching team we’re far too pragmatic [to allow anyone to think we are the finished article] – and I’m far too Cumbrian to allow that to happen.
“I’m already thinking how we’re going to plan for the pre-Six Nations camp in Leeds and how we’re going to maintain this standard. We’ve got to make sure we hit that level in Six Nations.”
Lancaster took the decision, initially as interim head coach, to cut adrift the experienced players who had failed at the World Cup and rebuild the England side.
Seven of the starting team that beat New Zealand were only capped this year. Chris Robshaw had made just one previous England appearance when he was named captain before last season’s Six Nations.
“I’ve never doubted the direction we’re going,” Lancaster said. “Rugby’s fairly simple. If you get a good culture, a good environment, good players, good coaches and if you work hard enough, you’ll get results.”
Scorers: England: Tries: Barritt, Ashton, Tuilagi. Cons: Farrell. Pens: Farrell 4, Burns 2. Drop Goals: Farrell. New Zealand: Tries: Savea 2, Read. Cons: Carter 2, Cruden.
England: Goode, Ashton, Tuilagi, Barritt, Brown, Farrell, B. Youngs, Corbisiero, T. Youngs, Cole, Launchbury, Parling, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan. Replacements: Joseph for Tuilagi (66), Burns for Farrell (64), Care for B. Youngs (68), Vunipola for Corbisiero (66), Paice for T. Youngs (72), Wilson for Cole (72), Lawes for Launchbury (66), Haskell for Morgan (57). Sin Bin: Vunipola (74).
New Zealand: Dagg, Jane, C. Smith, Nonu, Savea, Carter, A. Smith, Woodcock, Mealamu, O. Franks, Retallick, S. Whitelock, Messam, McCaw, Read. Replacements: B. Smith for Dagg (71), Cruden for Carter (64), Weepu for A. Smith (64), Crockett for Woodcock (66), Coles for Mealamu (62), Faumuina for O. Franks (52), Romano for Retallick (48), Vito for Messam (63).