Richie McCaw, Dan Carter… your boys took one hell of a beating!
21:13 GMT, 1 December 2012
Fifteen minutes after the final whistle, four or five young men in white shirts came shuffling down the Twickenham tunnel.
As they reached the touchline, another group in white hurried to join them. For a few moments, they gathered on the halfway line, waving shyly at the almost empty stands.Then they sloped off on a self-conscious lap of honour, unable to believe what they had just achieved.
There were no extravagant celebrations from England's players, nor from those who had watched them.
Swing low sweet chariot: Owen Farrell (left) hoists yet another deadly penalty kick to put England 12 points ahead at the break
Instead, there was a collective inability to appreciate the size and significance of one of the most remarkable victories in the history of English rugby.
For nobody had seen this coming, nobody had sensed or smelled it.
Sure, the England coaches would later speak of gradual improvements over the course of the autumn internationals, of a heightened ability to live with pressure, of an increased confidence in dealing with the might of the Southern Hemisphere.
But nobody could place hand upon heart and declare their long-held conviction that Twickenham would yield a scoreline reading England 38, New Zealand 21.
And what made it so extraordinarily impressive was the fact that the English triumph was so richly deserved.
There were no ifs, no buts, no might-have-beens.
To their credit, New Zealand sought no excuses. They were beaten up front, overwhelmed at the breakdown and run ragged behind.
In surrendering a 20-match unbeaten run, they sustained the kind of battering they have so often inflicted. The longer the match progressed, the worse their humiliation became.
Small wonder that even the staunchest English patriots were doubting the evidence of their eyes.
For this was New Zealand being hammered.
Get Carter: All Blacks Dan Carter finds no way through Tom Youngs' block (above), and below Carter is left wondering where it all went so wrong for the odds-on favourites
This was the best team in the world, the nation that sets the standards, the side whose name is a synonym for excellence.
When you play the All Blacks, you play their looming legend. You do not merely encounter the daunting present of Dan Carter and Ma'a Nonu, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.
No, you are required to face their ghosts; Wilson Whineray and Pinetree Meads, Don Clark, Ian Kirkpatrick, Sid Going and the rest.
As Brazil are to the round ball game, so New Zealand are to the oval ball.
Small wonder so many are cowed by their aura, beaten before they begin.
Nothing had suggested that England could avoid their traditional fate when the pre-match rituals were observed.
The fearsome haka was met, first in silence and then by a blast of Sweet Chariot. You could almost see the patrons exchanging worried glances: 'What have we done Hope we haven't made them angry.'
So apprehensive were the Twickenham watchers that they let slip their customary courtesy and whistled Carter when he took an age with his early penalties.
There were guilty blushes when the finest flyhalf in the game missed both of them. But Owen Farrell was not missing.
Instead, he was striking the ball sweetly, smoothly, unerringly. /12/01/article-2241591-164D074F000005DC-563_634x472.jpg” width=”634″ height=”472″ alt=”Provoked: Julian Savea goes over to score a try ” class=”blkBorder” />
Provoked: Julian Savea goes over to score a try
And then, provoked by yet another Farrell penalty, they suddenly began to play like All Blacks. Julian Savea's try in the corner was the reward for a move involving a flutter of flickering hands.
The next, a couple of minutes later, was even better, with Cory Jane securing the break, the brilliant Conrad Smith providing the link and Read loping over in the corner.
A point down, you might have bet the ranch on a New Zealand victory at that stage. But then we were into miracles and wonders.
Worth the wait: Chris Ashton (right) scored for the first time in a long time
Burns night: Freddie Burns was hot
First, there was the hectic conspiracy
involving Brad Baritt and Tuilagi down the left touchline, which
concluded with an offload from Tuilagi which quite belied his
Another superbly destructive Tuilagi break allowed Chris Ashton a clear run to the line for his first try in an age.
True, he could not resist a self-indulgent swallow dive, but we bit back our peevish disapproval as the game became completely insane.
A yawning interception by Tuilagi saw him literally stroll over after trotting from halfway without a challenge in sight, and a grimly intense international had turned into a Sevens tournament.
Another try by Savea – possibly the best of all – arrived far too late to influence the outcome, for by now Freddie Burns, the substitute fly-half, was kicking goals for fun on his debut.
Then it was over, a victory for the ages, a triumph far beyond England's most intemperate dreams. The Chariot was sung again; mildly at first, then with swelling fervour.
And the All Blacks shook English hands and stumbled away into the night, awaiting the welcome which awaits them back home.
Whisper it in Wanganui, speak it not in Silverdale … your boys took one hell of a beating.