How is it that you can beat a team one year, and then a year later you face that same team and find even fewer people believing you will win? That is the situation England are in this weekend, as New Zealand are back in town. Almost twelve months on from an astonishing win at Twickenham, can England channel that spirit and do it again? Few people seem to think so, primarily because that game has not, as it turns out, been the rule – it has been the exception. While the All Blacks have blown away all before them since then, England, despite plenty of ticks in the ‘W’ column, seem to have taken a few steps backward, and for whatever reason have not played with as much intensity or physicality since. This weekend, they need to return to that level if they are even to compete.
The faith has been kept with the men that defeated Argentina last weekend. If that means the team that played the first 40 minutes shows up, then England might have a chance. If, however, it’s the team that played the second half, they will be destroyed, as New Zealand are the masters of taking their chances when applying pressure.
The back three have a big role to play, as New Zealand do like to kick the ball. This is part of the reason why Foden has been drafted in on the wing – his positional play and ability under the high ball make him a sensible choice. Shorn of the duo that so terrorised the All Blacks last year, Twelvetrees and Tomkins in the centres must play more comfortably together than they have done thus far, and Farrell must not be afraid to attack the gain-line more. This is an issue that has been done to death, but it is never truer than against New Zealand – if you sit back and kick too much ball away, they will punish you.
In the front row Dan Cole returns in place of David Wilson, and has a big role to play. The All Blacks’ scrummaging is not one of their weapons, and if Cole and Marler can get on top and win some penalties then England will have a vital source of points and territory. Courtney Lawes rightly gets the nod over Geoff Parling, and will be tasked with smashing Dan Carter into next week, and putting him off his game. If you rattle Carter, you rattle New Zealand.
When you break it down, there is nothing out of this world about the New Zealand team. What sets them apart is their ruthless execution of the basics, and ability to do the right thing at the right time. That comes from an innate self-belief within the players that they are the best, and that they will get it right when it matters.
If England are looking for a weakness, they will be hard-pressed to find one. The absence of Conrad Smith is a (self-inflicted) blow, and Ben Smith, brilliant player as he is, is not an out-and-out centre. He hasn’t recreated his form from the wing there, and it is a fantastic chance for Tomkins to show what he can do in attack. Dan Carter wins his 100th cap and will want to celebrate the milestone with the kind of majestic performance he is capable of, but that have become increasingly rare as he enters the twilight of his career.
In the pack Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are the best second row partnership in world rugby – it is sickening to think they are still only 22 and 25 respectively. Kieran Read is the most complete number eight around, and probably the best player currently on the international scene, and flanking him McCaw and Messam complete a fearsome back row.
All eyes on
With the All Blacks’ kicking game so strong, huge responsibility falls on the shoulders of Mike Brown. He often tops the stats for metres made, and while the time allowed him at fullback undoubtedly skews this, his innate understanding of space is also a huge factor. More often than not, when a kick goes up – be it an up and under or a chip over the top – Brown is there to tidy up or challenge in the air. Against the most accurate kicking team in the world, Brown’s appreciation of space will be vital.
For the All Blacks, Ma’a Nonu is the heartbeat of the midfield. Far from the bosh-merchant he used to be, Nonu is now equal parts rapier and wrecking ball. His ability to chip or grubber the ball into space in the corner is unparalleled, while his distribution is now excellent. Of course, he is still a hugely powerful runner, and Billy Twelvetrees, after being bounced off by Matt Toomua earlier this autumn, will have to ensure his defensive efforts are up to scratch.
Head to head: Richie McCaw v Chris Robshaw/Tom Wood
So much of England’s victory last season came from the immense physicality England’s back-row duo brought to the breakdown. If they are to have any chance of recreating that win, Robshaw and Wood must again combine to blow Richie McCaw away in the tackle area, not allowing him the time to do what he does best and get over the ball. McCaw himself will be desperate to right the wrong of last year, the only blot on his copybook for a very long time.
Surely lightning won’t strike twice? England have looked sub-par this autumn, but then they looked even worse coming into the game last year. A huge rise in intensity and execution is needed, if they are even to keep up with a team that has set such high standards this year. If their back-row can bring the same physicality as last season, and the backs make the most of the platform it allows them by attacking the space, then England will have a chance. It’s almost impossible to see it happening again though. New Zealand by 10.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images