Preview: England v New Zealand

Date published: November 8 2014

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New Zealand will look to make a dent in England’s World Cup aspirations when the two sides face off at Twickenham on Saturday.

New Zealand will look to make a dent in England’s World Cup aspirations when the two sides face off at Twickenham on Saturday.

England traditionally ease into these Test matches but there’s no warm-up in 2014; New Zealand are in town and, even having lost to South Africa in October, remain the world’s greatest side.

A quick thought on Ellis Park, while much of the focus has been on South Africa’s win and rightly so, the All Blacks’ comeback has gotten lost in the details. They were one debatable penalty away from another famous win. Against the Wallabies two weeks later, they played their get-out-of-jail card and it worked.

Winning runs are funny things in that the profile and importance of the record is built up over time, but when a loss inevitably does come, the team’s prestige isn’t damaged by defeat.

Only a run of losses would make us start questioning the All Blacks’ brilliance. They’ve only suffered two in three years.

Cynics jumped on the game in the USA by labelling it as a great marketing tool, which of course it was, but the performance was also impressive and by visiting Chicago the whole sport benefits. A job well done. Now for the real business.

With that in mind the big guns are back; Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles and Wyatt Crockett all come back in, cranking up the total to 1,029 Test caps. England have less than half of that.

Their way of playing isn’t a secret, it’s just monumentally hard to contain. The set-piece is strong, the defence punishing and chances are more or less always taken.

Slow down the ruck ball and tackling around the arms to limit the number of offloads cuts down New Zealand’s number of line breaks, in theory at least.

What’s trickier is forcing the All Blacks into errors, because they make so few. The American commentators practically salivated when recalling how the All Blacks hadn’t dropped a single ball during their two-hour training session.

Defeating them therefore requires luck as much as intensity. Aaron Cruden’s off day with the boot at Soldier Field however will probably his last for a while.

Playing at Twickenham will give the All Blacks an extra edge, just as it always has done in the past. Five of their last six visits to ‘HQ’ have ended with the Twickenham faithful heading home disappointed.

Even Dan Carter’s absence isn’t a major concern, although Steve Hansen will hope to have him fit and firing when New Zealand return to London in less than a year’s time.

Talk of the All Blacks ‘aura’ or obsessing over the haka in the build-up to Saturday has been used as a distraction in England but the real truth about the All Blacks hasn’t been, which is what the stats show us.

Out of 10 statistical categories in the Rugby Championship, New Zealand topped eight of them – tries, clean breaks, carries, metres, defenders beaten, tackle success, offloads and scrum success. And yellow cards, although obviously that’s less positive.

They are a tour de force unlike anything else in world rugby, maybe even world sport. One of the greatest sides of all time. But, as Pat Lambie showed us, they are not unbeatable.

That will be the message that Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff have drummed into their players his week at Pennyhill Park.

Back in June, England had a whiff of winning in New Zealand for the first time in 11 years in Auckland, made the scoreline look flattering in Dunedin and then were unceremoniously sent on their holidays in Hamilton with a thumping. A 3-0 series defeat in black and white, but not a catastrophe.

Even with the excitement around the debut of Semesa Rokoduguni and the solid feel to this England side, they really need their best possible XV to defeat New Zealand.

Joe Marler, David Wilson and Dave Attwood are all very good players, but they’re not Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole and Joe Launchbury.

That’s before considering the centres, where Brad Barritt will be England’s rock but the initial plan was to reunite him with Manu Tuilagi.

The Leicester centre is undeniably England’s best option in midfield, but in Kyle Eastmond they have a livewire replacement with quicker feet and deceptive strength.

Barritt offers security in containing Sonny Bill Williams yet he also has to shine with the ball in hand as he does for Saracens, both to silence his critics and to get England firing in attack and release the likes of Jonny May, who at best has been unreliable so far in Test rugby.

Only a brave, full-throttle performance will get Lancaster’s team close to a victory. Handr

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