Starting a three-Test series this weekend, New Zealand will look to kick off the year with a convincing win over a depleted England.
Starting a three-Test series this weekend, New Zealand will look to kick off the year with a convincing win over a depleted England in Auckland.
It's not wrong to feel cheated about this Test. After all, the billing in New Zealand of England sending a 'B' team, a scratch side of players who are not quite the best St George has to offer, has been force fed to anyone reading the local press in the build-up to Saturday's clash at Eden Park.
England's XV is “a sign of disrespect”. Hopefully they will “get belted.” The English press corps are “catering to their own correspondents first.” A bee is firmly wedged in New Zealand's bonnet.
That's fair enough, to an extent. Shambolic organisation has deprived England of their best players for a first Test that some now see as tarnished, others as a chance for England to truly test their depth. Questions have to be asked as to why back in 2010 the decisions were made to produce this outcome.
The second weekend of June is regarded as the first weekend for Test matches by the IRB. Despite last Saturday being May 31, it still counted as the first June weekend. Steve Hansen's suggestion to move the Test series to July is unhelpful, but by a week would have been ideal.
It's tough enough for England to beat the All Blacks at full strength, let alone without a minimum of five senior players. If England were to beat New Zealand under reversed similar circumstances in November, it would feel hollow.
But suggesting that England will be thrashed and humiliated in Auckland is an even greater sign of disrespect, ignorant of what Stuart Lancaster has achieved during his time in charge. Nothing is going to change the situation now. Perhaps everyone should take note from Lancaster's tone and not “sit around and moan.”
There is real depth to England's squad, even with the absence of Owen Farrell, Tom Wood, Billy Vunipola, Dylan Hartley and Courtney – sorry Brodie, it's not Michael – Lawes.
Many of their replacements have points to prove. James Haskell returns to New Zealand for the first time since representing the Highlanders in 2012, immersing himself in New Zealand rugby culture and seemingly not acting as some kind of confidant to Lancaster's squad regarding the All Blacks mortality.
Ben Morgan and Freddie Burns have both endured poor domestic seasons in the mire at Gloucester. Rob Webber, so often sidelined, has a chance to make a statement.
Then there is Kyle Eastmond – whose season has been overshadowed at Bath, not playing since April, but has enough talent. Jonny May is yet to fully convince of his abilities at his level, despite scoring mesmerising tries in Cherry and White. Marland Yarde could be England's greatest weapon.
England are not without their established talents. Joe Marler, Joe Launchbury, Manu Tuilagi and Mike Brown will all run out in Auckland. Losing Danny Care's tempo at the base of the scrum is a blow but Ben Young is in good form.
Brown has scooped up awards as the best players in the Six Nations and Premiership, arriving as arguably the best full-back in the world. England might be depleted, but they are no mugs.
Chris Robshaw will see to that. England's skipper is a fine representation of the Lancaster era. A workaholic who irritates those crying out for a specialist openside before continually going on to prove them wrong. He has worked hard to earn respect.
That all said, can we realistically expect them to win at Eden Park? No. That's not a slight on who Lancaster selects; after all New Zealand last lost at this venue – to France – back in 1994. Launchbury was just three years of age.
How do you top an unbeaten year? 14 wins and no losses. Critics are already prowling to chop the All Blacks down for peaking too early ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup.
What's encouraging for Hansen and his coaches are the number of quality reinforcements when key players drop out. Forgive the rest of the rugby world for not showering sympathy on New Zealand for being without Kieran Read when Jerome Kaino and Victor Vito are available.
Collectively the New Zealand sides in Super Rugby have shown the best form all year, with an average of 36.2 points so far compared to Australia (32.6) and South Africa (29.6).
Some doubts still linger over selection. Keven Mealamu is clinging on at hooker, with no direct successor yet to step forward. Loosehead prop isn't watertight, while Liam Messam and the Chiefs have struggled.
There are no such problems in the backs, but losing Julian Savea is a blow considering his try-scoring appetite. Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith are the epitome of experience and balance. Malakai Fekitoa, the 22-year-old sensation, is primed to explode onto the world stage.
Fly-half though is the key area for New Zealand, as is often the case when Dan Carter is out of the picture. The leading Test points scorer will return for The Rugby Championship, but Hansen chose to go for Aaron Cruden, who has recently returned to fitness, ahead of Beauden Barrett. That's harsh on the excellent Hurricanes pivot.
When you consider the individual areas of competition then New Zealand's superiority shines through. Line-out? Check, although the return of Geoff Parling's expertise in this area will help England. Scrum? Probably – plenty relies on whether David Wilson can find a way through Tony Woodcock. Breakdown? As hard as England work, New Zealand are too savvy.
England will run themselves into the ground for victory, displaying the attitude and commitment that has won them so much praise. But they are in New Zealand now. There is no more daunting task, no greater examination of quality. It's the challenge they wanted. It's the challenge they will get.
Players to Watch:
For New Zealand: Timing your run of form ahead of Test selection is crucial. Jerome Kaino's surge has been spot on, his run with the Blues after returning from Japan putting him in position to win back the All Blacks jersey he last wore during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Kaino is one of the best athletes in the sport, a favoured target in the line-out and monster around the breakdown and tackle area. Losing Kieran Read is of course a blow – he is not discussed as the best player in the world for nothing – but Kaino is a more than worthy replacement.
For England: You expect that the All Blacks probably haven't forgotten about Manu Tuilagi. His wrecking ball run through Carter, Richie McCaw and Aaron Smith gave England the belief required to see off the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012. England missed him last November. There's an argument that while very talented, Tuilagi is not yet a world class centre. He may prove that on this tour.
Head to Head: Ma'a Nonu and Kyle Eastmond The physical mismatch here is obvious. Nonu is 6ft and 108kgs – Eastmond is 5ft 6 and weighs just 80. The Bath centre is of course a good enough defender,