England face a huge challenge against the All Blacks on Saturday – but there are a few reasons to be cheerful ahead of the first Test in Auckland…
JOE ROKOCOKO was nowhere near the All Blacks set-up in July 1994 – he had barely celebrated his 11th birthday. Still, the mercurial winger, who packed 46 tries into a dazzling seven-year Test career, needs no reminding of the date New Zealand last lost at Eden Park.
“It’s fresh in my mind,” he told the Evening Standard last week. “It was against France and it was Jonah Lomu’s first game. The All Blacks pride themselves on making sure no one intrudes our backyard. Eden Park is like a fortress for us.”
That defeat – a 23-20 reverse to France sealed by scores from Emile Ntamack and Jean Luc-Sadourny – actually came on the occasion of Lomu’s second cap, but the sentiment holds firm. Winning in Auckland is phenomenally tough.
A run of 31 victories and a draw forms the formidable unbeaten record that Stuart Lancaster’s intrepid yet understrength England will attempt to topple. It’s a humongous, intimidating task. Even so, Chris Robshaw’s side can get close. Here’s how…
Catch out the All Blacks
Playing in the Super 15 must feel like sprinting on a treadmill with the settings on slightly too high – stumble and you are catapulted off painfully. The current campaign has seen a worryingly tall injury tally, many of these long term. Remarkably, Steve Hansen’s squad is largely unscathed. However, the intensity required by players to perform for their franchises still makes refocusing extremely difficult.
Twelve months ago, a France side that endured a dreadful Six Nations almost ransacked Eden Park. Wesley Fofana was majestic, the All Blacks oddly shambolic – forcing things and tangling themselves inside their half. A 23-13 score does not do justice to how tight it got.
Few have stressed this point: France actually arrived in New Zealand without their domestic finalists as well thanks to a similar scheduling cock-up. The multicultural Top 14 meant the situation was less damaging than it is for England this time but a France team shorn of some regular starters nearly derailed the All Blacks’ perfect year before it began.
Hansen will have had two short camps, plus this week to prepare. Despite the number of caps at his disposal, that makes it difficult for him to fix a side onto the same wavelength.
James Haskell proved among Lancaster’s canniest selections even before boarding the plane. Asked about what he’d taken from his season with the Highlanders in 2012, the London Wasp gave an exceptional answer.
“I learned that All Blacks are human,” said the flanker, who shared a changing room with Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and – during a stint in Japan prior to that – Ma’a Nonu. “They aren’t these rugby machines who can do all this stuff we can’t do. They are dedicated professionals who are very talented, but we are fed on highlight reels over here.”
Banishing the embarrassment of 2011 by showing respect is a big aim for England. Haskell’s demeanour also suggests England are intent on earning respect themselves. It is a perfectly balanced self-esteem that can help newcomers – Dave Ward and Luke Cowan-Dickie for instance – to thrive. Free from the claustrophobia of expectation, there is nothing to lose.
Speed to burn
Pending fitness, Danny Care, Jonny May, Marland Yarde, Mike Brown and either Danny Cipriani or Freddie Burns will start on Saturday. Add in Ward, Robshaw and Joe Launchbury and you have a set of all-court ball players with more than enough pace to stretch any opposition on the planet. New Zealand’s defensive system – a drift that softens in the wide channels – could be picked apart if the tourists back themselves to spread it.
Evidence of Mike Catt’s influence emerged for the first time this spring with some progressive attacking displays, so we can expect his charges to be even sharper this summer. Much depends on David Wilson and Ward at the set-piece, but such a sparky set of runners will ensure England don’t die wondering.
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu isn’t shy of hyperbole. That said, the Samoan is a refreshing voice on rugby who makes plenty of valid arguments. On the basis of England’s 38-21 drubbing of New Zealand in 2012, he reckons Manu Tuilagi is the second best player in the world.
Of course that is extremely generous, but the All Blacks won’t have forgotten how the young Tiger mauled them to pieces at Twickenham 18 months ago. Back from a prolonged injury break following his trip Down Under with the Lions, Tuilagi looked close to his bristling peak as Leicester’s season finished. One thing is for absolute certain: he will be launched like a cannonball of muscle off the first decent platform England get.
Finally, we come to the most important facet. Lancaster has known about this tour – and it’s immensely annoying scheduling – from a few weeks after he took up his current job on an interim basis in January 2012. For two and a half years it has been earmarked as an acid test of his squad’s depth heading into 2015. He has battled circumstances with diligence.
He watched both Premiership semi-finals with four spreadsheets in front of him, each possible combination for Eden Park at hand. He found out about George Ford’s shoulder problem at least ten days before it was made public, no doubt informing Burns and Cipriani immediately to ease their minds and fixate them on the monumental task ahead.
It’s those little touches that make Lancaster such a great man-manager. On arriving in New Zealand, his calm, affable authority at a press conference for Kiwi media was also spot on – no issue dodged but no quarter given. Flanked by Catt, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell he is the sort of man that any team will rise to any occasion for.