England’s autumn comes to a close this weekend, with the very real possibility that they will walk away with a solitary victory against Fiji to their names. New Zealand are in town, and the All Blacks are as complete a team as you could hope to watch these days. However, after having most of their squad struck down by a severe sickness this week, is there a glimmer of hope for England?
Reasons to back England
Little is expected this weekend. Against Australia and South Africa the fans and media alike demanded victories, and on both occasions everyone came away disappointed they couldn’t overcome opposition that was very beatable. This weekend, however, they will be well aware they are playing the best team in the world, and for all the brave talk in the week of ‘the All Blacks are beatable’, the players will head into the match knowing nobody really expects them to win. With a bit of luck though, this might allow them to loosen the shackles and play a bit of rugby. New Zealand may have recorded 3 comfortable victories so far, but their usually miserly defence has been a little leaky, conceding two tries to Wales and three to Scotland. That will give England hope that they might be able to cross the whitewash, having failed to do so last week.
In terms of selection, some might be disappointed to see Freddie Burns on the bench rather than starting. Everyone is hoping Burns can replicate his Premiership form on the international stage, and if he can do so this weekend he will certainly cause the All Blacks’ defence some problems. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if Owen Farrell’s bizarre ascension to the list of candidates for IRB Player of the Year spurs him on to greater things on the pitch. The only other change comes on the bench, where Courtney Lawes returns after a long injury lay-off. Lawes will add plenty of ballast when introduced, and will relish the chance to run hard at tired legs. Hopefully, Lancaster will give the likes of Burns and Joseph some game time, being as they are two players likely to feature heavily in the future of this England team. They may be raw, but with nobody expecting a win what is the harm in giving them half an hour’s exposure to the best team in the world?
Reasons to back New Zealand
This is an incredibly inexperienced England outfit facing the best team in the world. One word that sums up England’s autumn thus far is naïve, something you cannot afford to be against the All Blacks. England’s decision making has been poor at times, and New Zealand will look to punish any rushes of blood to the head. Ben Youngs, Toby Flood, and Owen Farrell were all guilty of kicking aimlessly last weekend, and with the likes of Israel Dagg and Julien Savea to run it back at them this weekend they will have to be a lot better.
Dan Carter returns to the starting lineup, looking in possibly the form of his life – but then how often does he really have a bad game? Not that they really missed him, mind you, as Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett have looked worthy understudies. Andrew Hore’s disappointingly short ban will still see him miss this weekend, but with Kevin Mealamu to take his place it is arguable whether they have actually weakened the team or not. Indeed, young Dane Coles has looked destructive in his appearances from the bench and the future of that position looks pretty safe.
In the backs Carter will look to release Nonu and Smith, who form easily the most destructive centre partnership in the world, combining power and pace with the intelligence and awareness that comes through playing together for years. There has been a lot of talk about Tuilagi becoming the ‘new Nonu’, but for that to happen he has many, many more strings to add to his bow. Scrum half has been perhaps the one position where New Zealand haven’t boasted a world-class player, but young Aaron Smith has quickly put paid to that. All in all New Zealand rugby looks in rude health.
Even the most glaringly naïve England fan will have trouble predicting a home victory in this one. The only hope for England is for New Zealand to have one of those rare off days, but with little riding on the match you would expect them to be relaxed and play with the attacking abandon they have become famous for. Even if that did fail them, they still have an imposing pack and one of the best kickers in the world to grind them out a victory. Sadly, it is not likely to be a fairy tale win for the men in white. New Zealand by 15.