A year on since convincingly dispatching the world champions New Zealand, the England team finds itself in a very similar situation, starring down the barrel of a sizeable All Blacks gun.
After two unconvincing performances so far in the series, which admittedly resulted in wins, they now face the prospect of facing an All Blacks side that has swept away all before it this year, including a fiercely vengeful South African side in the decisive game of the Rugby Championship (and on South African home-soil no less) and a spirited Australian team in the final game of the Bledisloe Cup.
The performance against Australia was a huge improvement, for 40 minutes at least, with Billy Twelvetrees proving he can distribute the ball as well as any centre on the circuit and also asserting himself as a powerful ball-carrier for his try, though there would have been calls for him to be axed if he hadn’t have crossed the whitewash.
The set-piece came together well too, with the scrum standing up well to a powerful Argentine pack and the Northampton lineout combination of Hartley and Lawes clicking nicely, Hartley also Hartley putting in a massive shift in the loose. England, however, go into the final game of the series with injuries to props Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola, so, with fourth choice loosehead Matt Mullan likely to feature from the bench, making sure the new set-up gels quickly will be key for Graham Rowntree.
Billy Vunipola has taken to International rugby like a duck to water and his now stand-in Ben Morgan showed that he’s still in contention with a barnstorming run through the Argentinean centres to touch down under the posts, thankfully, otherwise it would have been an exceedingly tedious second half.
Other areas will continue to trouble Lancaster, however, such as Ashton’s persistent frailties in defence and his less-and-less potent attacking threat, as well as Joel Tomkins’ failure to bring his physicality and offloading game to the International scene. Ashton gets the nod again though, with a significant point to prove, as prolonged strains keep out Christian Wade and Marland Yarde.
Where to start?
There seems to be innately instilled in the All Blacks from birth what can only be described as an engrained mentality that they will be the best in the world.
The case in point is Ben Smith. Few will realise he made his International debut in 2009, whilst playing for the same Super Rugby outfit as Israel Dagg; the Highlanders. Playing out of position on the wing (he too prefers to play at fullback), he relentlessly worked on his game and has turned into one of the game’s most lethal finishers, leading the try-scoring in this year’s Rugby Championship with a record of eight tries in six matches. Give him time in his current outside centre channel, where he is filling in for the on-sabbatical Conrad Smith, and he could provide the All Blacks with a more than able, long-term replacement for The Snake.
The trouble comes for other nations when you examine the individual players that make up the collective. If you were to put together a world XV, aside from maybe of handful of select players, the vast majority of the starting line-up would be kiwis. Add in Kieran Read and a fit-again Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, who at the age of 32 still continues to regularly top the team’s stats tables (he made 19 tackles against France last week) and the class exudes from all corners. Even the front five, who may not be the most potent scrummaging threat in the world (but certainly hold their own), make up for this with their ability to offload the ball and make key decisions around the park.
AND then you look at their strength in depth. How’s this for a second-string side:
Wyatt Crockett, Andrew Hore/Dane Coles, Ben Franks , Luke Romano, Jeremy Thrush , Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, Victor Vito, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden, Ryan Crotty, Robbie Fruean, Rene Ranger, Frank Halai, Cory Jane
AND who kicked the points that won them the World Cup in 2011? Stephen Donald – their 4th choice fly-half (5th if you count Nick Evans).
AND Sonny Bill Williams is aiming for a return to rugby union in time for the 2015 Rugby World Cup…
Sorry about that, TTT apologises for getting a little carried away waxing lyrical about the All Blacks. Believe it or not we are actually supporting England!
Unfortunately, though, we don’t see a recurrence of last year. The All Black side remains largely the same and while they go out to win every game, will no doubt approach this encounter with added fervour.
Luke Romano returning to the bench at the expense of Sam Cane hints at the All Blacks planning to prevent a repeat of being out muscled at the breakdown but the difference may well be their composure. England played reasonably well for 40 minutes against Australia and Argentina but poorly and with little creativity in each of the other halves. Among New Zealand’s many strengths is their ability to remain patient (as displayed in that South Africa game), manage the game and if necessary adapt their style, whether it be sticking-it-up-the-jumper, or unleashing their backline. You will rarely see the All Blacks dip during 80 minutes and if England lose concentration they could be in for a torrid time.
New Zealand by 15
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 (capt) ,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 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (capt), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam 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