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Preview: England v New Zealand

14th November 2013 18:28

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One year on from England's shock victory, the All Blacks are returning to Twickenham with a score to be settled.

The 38-21 defeat on December 1st 2012 is New Zealand's only loss in over two years, a smear on an otherwise nearly perfect record that with each win since that afternoon has become harder to explain.

Food-poisoning talk was both rumoured and then brushed aside by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen at the time. Looking back on last year's events this week, he saw the fixture as a match where "England were the best team, daylight was second, and we were third."

Before toiling against France last weekend in Paris though, New Zealand in 2013 have been nothing short of phenomenal.

They swept aside their Southern Hemisphere rivals in The Rugby Championship with relative ease, the Springboks aside, to win a second title in succession and doing so for large portions without Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

Both figureheads will be involved at Twickenham with McCaw adding to his record for the most caps leading his country with 85 and Carter becoming the fifth All Black to break the 100 cap mark after McCaw, Mils Muliaina, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock.

In fact when it comes to experience New Zealand's total of caps - 842 - completely overshadows that of Stuart Lancaster's side. McCaw alone has 127, the same number as England's entire back division. A wealth of experience counted for little in last year's anomaly, but it is an undeniable advantage.

Coming back to Carter, few rank alongside the all-time leading Test points scorer when it comes to the greatest fly-halves to have played the game. Jonny Wilkinson, Phil Bennett, Barry John and Michael Lynagh are all challengers to that mantle, but Carter's level of consistency over such a long period of time is unparalleled.

He also tends to excel against England. Carter has faced the Red Rose on ten occasions, scoring a total of 171 points. England in those matches have only scored an average of 15 points against the All Blacks, making the average score Carter 17-15 England. New Zealand have an embarrassing set of riches at fly-half with Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett. Carter still reigns supreme.

McCaw will be flanked by Liam Messam and Kieran Read - with both enjoying outstanding seasons - while the new centre combination of Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith are paired once again as Conrad Smith is on leave.

Recent scrum troubles again underlined that the All Blacks are not perfect, as Nicolas Mas harried Tony Woodcock and the Paris turf crumbled away to possibly deny France a draw at the death last Saturday - the series of reset scrums five metres out from the New Zealand line causing the visitors to sweat and perhaps raising a slight smile on the face of Graham Rowntree.

It is the All Blacks' one fallibility - a weakpoint that Argentina and France have recently exposed but no one has fully capitalised on. 12 from 12 in 2013, New Zealand remain perfect.

As for England, since that peak of last year's stunner they have won eight out of nine Test matches.

Lancaster's team are undoubtedly closer as a group, battle-hardened into a defensive unit that is winning matches - however unattractively they might be doing so.

Winning without the aesthetics is supposedly the staple of successful teams, and England are winning - but the performance aspect feels misplaced.

Against Argentina leading 24-6 at half-time, the likes of New Zealand and South Africa would be expected to put the foot down. England instead laboured and went 43 minutes without scoring any more points on a Pumas side who are in a rut.

Familiarity is an issue - this was only the second time Lee Dickson and Owen Farrell along with Billy Twelvetrees and Joel Tomkins had been paired together - but a spark to England's backplay is missing. Twelvetrees has the passing game to open England up, but a cluttered midfield full of forwards and Owen Farrell's inconsistency is slowing England down.

Farrell has to give England more width on the ball to avoid the fumbling attacking play we've seen too often in November, but there is also the sense that England are lacking the right personnel to finish opportunities.

Had injuries been avoided then we might have certainly seen Marland Yarde and Manu Tuilagi start, with possibly Christian Wade on the opposite wing in place of Chris Ashton. All three offer a burst of X-factor that is missing. Ben Foden has pace but is not a Test winger, whilst Ashton remains unconvincing despite scoring against the Pumas.

The pack is in good shape - even with the losses of both Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola at loosehead prop - good enough anyhow to give England a platform, but the question is what they do with the product.

Only C.Smith and Cory Jane are missing from the XV that England famously brought down a year ago. The message from Chris Robshaw and the England coaching staff all week will have been one of having no fear, regardless of New Zealand's status and record.

Robshaw has been excellent for England this November, making 34 tackles in two matches and hushing those calls for his selection and leadership to be reconsidered.

To defeat a team that currently holds a record of 31 wins from 33 matches since before the last Rugby World Cup, England will need Robshaw to give everything in order to inspire success.

Ones to watch:

For England: England were perhaps expected to bring back Geoff Parling - lineout mastermind and British and Irish Lion - to run the set-piece against the world's best. Instead Courtney Lawes has got the nod, placing him in a position of great responsibility. The maturation of Lawes from physical beast to tactician was not a storyline expected to emerge in November, but here the Northampton Saints lock finds himself in a game of huge importance. The pressure is on him to both front up for the battle and also help England execute key lineouts. His relationship with Saints team-mate Dylan Hartley will help.

For New Zealand: Carter will obviously gather plenty of attention as he celebrates a century, but Sam Whitelock also has an achievement to take note of. Whitelock, at just over 25 years of age, will win his 50th cap for New Zealand since making his debut in 2010. The Crusaders lock has made an astronomical rise in Test rugby so far, winning the World Cup in 2011, and appears on course for a century of his own. To have reached this landmark in less than four seasons is extraordinary.

Head-to-head: Two finishers who started their Test careers in prolific fashion. After 15 tries in his first 17 Tests however, Chris Ashton has only managed three in his last 19. The Saracen has worked on his game to cure defensive and positional flaws, but it's his strike rate that England miss. Despite scoring last weekend, Ashton is still on borrowed time. Julian Savea on the other hand returns after missing last weekend's clash against France. The Hurricane has scored 16 tries in his first 18 Tests and is in ominous form. Ashton's homework will be scrutinised.

Recent results:

2012: England won 38-21 at Twickenham
2010: New Zealand won 26-16 at Twickenham
2009: New Zealand won 19-6 at Twickenham
2008: New Zealand won 32-6 at Twickenham
2008: New Zealand won 44-12 in Christchurch
2008: New Zealand won 37-20 in Auckland
2006: New Zealand won 41-20 at Twickenham
2005: New Zealand won 23-19 at Twickenham
2004: New Zealand won 36-12 in Auckland
2004: New Zealand won 36-3 in Dunedin
2003: England won 15-13 in Wellington
2002: England won 31-28 at Twickenham

Prediction: England's scrum gives them an opening, but New Zealand are too clinical and inspired by Carter's landmark will be focused on rewarding him with a win and to gain revenge for last year. New Zealand by 10.

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Joel Tomkins, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Ben Foden, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 David Wilson, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Alex Goode.

New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Charles Piutau, 13 Ben Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Steven Luatua, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Ryan Crotty.

Date: Saturday, November 16
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Venue: Twickenham
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
Television match official: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
Assessor: Clayton Thomas (Wales)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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