Johnson's England provide hope
On the bright side, at least no-one can accuse England of being predictable any more.
At 3-17 down at the interval, with New Zealand conducting a quiet masterclass in ruthlessness and efficiency, a familiar tale looked set to unfold - Dan Carter tugging the strings, the visitors stretching their legs, and lead, the points piling up and the home heads hanging lower with every passing minute.
That England ignored the script and instead fought back with character, closing to within 10 points with nine minutes still on the clock and their opponents down to 14 men, warmed the home cockles as supporters streamed away to bonfire parties across the home counties.
Then again, was there ultimately anything surprising about a ninth successive defeat by the All Blacks?
The world's best team had not conceded a try in their previous two tours of the northern hemisphere but England managed to snap that streak. Indeed, Martin Johnson's side produced plenty of fireworks - yet at no point beyond the first five minutes did they ever really look like winning the game.
The difference? One side converted possession into points, the other did not.
New Zealand fly-half Carter causes alarm in the English defence
With occasional exceptions, this was surgeon's knife versus broadsword. England were not the fall guys of the last five years, yet their hopes of an all-too-rare upset still went up in smoke.
That Saturday's display contained more dash and derring-do than the 19-6 defeat a year ago adds weight to the argument that this is an England side heading in the right direction. There appears to be a game-plan in place this autumn that was noticeable by its absence a year ago, a freshness about England's approach that suggests brighter days really do lie ahead.
Not that you would have guessed that from the reaction of Johnson's weary players at the final whistle. Fightbacks are one thing, victories quite another.
"For 15 minutes in the first half we switched off, and you can't switch off in international rugby," growled Nick Easter, at the forefront as England pushed the All Blacks backwards in the final quarter. "We're very disappointed men."
Scrum-half Ben Youngs, quietly impressive on his Twickenham debut, might be free from the baggage of past thumpings from the All Blacks. But he, too, cut a chastened figure in the tunnel afterwards. "You can hear a pin drop in that dressing-room," he revealed. "All the heads are down, because that was a game we could have won.
"It's encouraging that we created chances, but it's not encouraging that we didn't take them. I felt we gifted them 14 points too - I missed a tackle on Carter that led to the second one."
In Youngs, England have a nine who should serve them admirably for years to come. In Dan Cole and Andrew Sheridan they also have two props that a world-class scrum can be built on. While Kiwi assistant coach Steve Hansen might have complained afterwards about referee Romain Poite's interpretation, the English front row caused their grizzled opponents problems throughout.
England number eight Easter was particularly impressive as the game became more broken
It was a less edifying afternoon at the line-out. Hopes had been high that the Lawes-Palmer combination, bolstered by the extra options provided by Tom Croft, might put the Kiwi jumpers under pressure. Instead, in an opening hour where the visitors dominated possession, England lost the ball three times on their own throw - a profligacy they could ill afford.
But it was the wastefulness when they did have the ball in threatening positions that was ultimately the key to their undoing. Time and time again they threatened to wrest the momentum from the All Blacks, only for an error or misjudgement to snuff out the spark.
On the half-hour, having already missed seven tackles and staring down the barrel at a 14-point deficit, they were five metres from the visitors' try line and with numbers wide out right when the pass went short to Sheridan instead.
A few minutes later, Flood missed a slottable penalty from down the middle. And when a fast flat pass left from Youngs then put Mike Tindall in space on the Kiwi 22, the old battering-ram hesitated, dawdled inside and then threw a change-of-heart pass behind Lewis Moody on the outside. Chances made, chances lost.
It was the same story in the second half. Flood kicked a penalty to make it 6-17, only for New Zealand to go straight down the other end and force a penalty of their own to allow Carter to re-establish the gap.
When Dylan Hartley, born in Rotorua, crashed through like a cannonball to bring England back into it, the home side were almost immediately pinged for not releasing, and Carter eased his side away again.
The All Blacks, by contrast, bulldozed open every tiny chink they were offered. Sonny Bill Williams might not yet be the finished article, but the threat of his midfield partnership with Ma'a Nonu sucked in English defenders and created space out wide that Hosea Gear and Mils Muliaina were only too happy to exploit.
His off-loading was everything we thought it was, the support runners as numerous and well-timed as we've grown to expect. It was his cute ball inside to Jerome Kaino that set up Gear's opening try, his latent menace that drew the white shirts before Carter bounced off Youngs in the build-up to the second.
"You will always make errors - they made two or three too - but we made too many," admitted Johnson, pragmatic as always.
"We got a line-out call wrong, we won a kick-off and then knocked on - and that just heaps the pressure back on you.
"As a team we weren't at the races quickly enough to be in there at the end. You can't replicate the intensity of Test match rugby in training - we were rusty in all areas, physically, mentally, and they weren't.
"There's lots of positives out of the game. But I don't want to sit here and say we competed because we want to set our sights higher than that. We have to go on and win Test matches. You can do four or five phases of good play but if someone loses composure and makes a mistake..."
If England's players and coaches were downcast, so were the All Blacks, who hardly stepped out into the chill November night afterwards in the mood to cavort around with sparklers.
"We're still guilty of giving too many chances away through our own mistakes," bemoaned skipper Richie McCaw. "We made breaks and didn't finish them off, and leading into the last 20 minutes we kept giving them opportunities. That's the frustration for the guys."
You're unlikely to be dancing in the streets after 80 minutes of tough Test rugby. But McCaw's downbeat reading of the match, and his team-mates' muted response to yet another comfortable win in south-west London, was another indication of the relative standing of two sides 10 months out from the World Cup.
England lose by 10 and most of their supporters will have left Twickenham in buoyant mood. The All Blacks maintain their perch atop the world rankings and yet berate themselves for their failings.
"At vital times, especially in defence, we gave the ball away too easily by trying to do too much sometimes," said McCaw. "Those are the decisions we've got to get right if we're going to improve.
"There's a learning we have to take out of the last two weeks. There's time in the game when that's the right thing to do, and there's time when hanging on to the ball for one more phase is the right thing to do. Risk versus reward is the thing we need to get under control."
In a strange way, Johnson has it easier than All Blacks coach Graham Henry. No-one expects Johnson's England side to win the World Cup - a semi-final place would be beyond most expectations.
For Henry, by contrast, there's only one outcome that will count as success. Fail to win the old gold pot on home soil and this long unbeaten run in the northern hemisphere, let alone the nine wins on the trot against England, will count for nothing.
Those worries are for another night. For now, the contrast is clear. England showed glimpses of what they might achieve. The All Blacks, to an outsider's eyes at least, revealed close to the full picture.