For the first Test in a colossal three-match series against the All Blacks, Stuart Lancaster has named what he feels is a “strong side”.
Well-worn logistical issues and injuries have meant that an untried pairing of Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond make up the vital channel between No 10 and No 12 while James Haskell’s impressive end-of-season form for Wasps sees the flanker usurp Tom Johnson on the blindside, but there are familiar partnerships throughout the pack and with the English back three.
However, while Lancaster is delighted to call upon some experienced Test animals on such a big week, his starting 15 collectively have 299 caps to their names. The All Blacks XV to face them at Eden Park in Auckland this Saturday has 779.
The theme of returning to the Test arena may well be the one that pulls up the headlines. 50-capper Haskell comes onto England’s flank, Danny Cipriani is on the scene and Jerome Kaino packs down at No 8 for the All Blacks on his return from Japanese rugby, replacing the concussed and rested Kieran Read. There is no shortage of players holding their hand up for selection.
“I look at the pack, with James Haskell coming in who hasn’t had an opportunity for a while, with Geoff Parling in the side, Rob Webber who has been a good player for us and gets his opportunity,” said Lancaster on his team. “I guess the key decision centres around fly-half. Freddie Burns had done enough to warrant the start. Danny Cipriani has definitely made some good progress and I’m more than happy to accommodate him on the bench.”
Lancaster also suggests that fate has dealt him a good hand with one selection, with injury meaning that Chris Pennell coming in for an injured Anthony Watson on the bench and impressing in training.
On the other side of the divide, Steve Hansen has had his own decision to make at fly-half. Beauden Barrett sits on the bench with Aaron Cruden taking the starting No 10 jersey for the All Blacks.
While Hansen joked about new sensation Malakai Fekitoa being the replacement second five-eighth – No 12 to you and me – despite only being seen at 13 or on the wing, he has a “caged animal” in Kaino coming back and a stand-off he trusts to take it to Burns, with the chat in New Zealand being just as much about Cruden’s form as chat in England has been about Burns banishing the ghosts of a forgettable domestic season,
“It comes down to a number of things,” Hansen said of his decision to pick Cruden over Barrett. “One: he’s the incumbent. Two: we think he plays better starting rather than coming off the bench. Three: he’s got a couple of games under his belt and he’s back to his cheeky self around here. He’s ready to go and he’s a good reader of the game, a good organizer and I believe he’s very comfortable now in that role.”
While the sillier chat before this game has seen the All Blacks being accused of getting England players’ names wrong and not knowing who they are facing and England boys off to get their hooves tended to at the salon, posing for pictures mid-pedicure, the fact of the matter is that some experienced England players will lead some not-so-experienced England players into a match at Eden Park that would force most mere mortals to relieve themselves with fear.
An exciting challenge, no doubt, but while England monitor Danny Care’s fitness after a ‘jar’ to his shoulder and holding a weary, newly-arrived Premiership champion like Lee Dickson on standby, New Zealand have an axis of Aaron Smith, Cruden, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to run their plays.
If England are to upset New Zealand under lights on Saturday, they will need form and comfort to go out of the window and for wiser, more battle-hardened partnerships in the Kiwi backline to be truly shocked by the lesser-known names in England’s.
Let’s hope Burns and Eastmond are truly unknown to the All Blacks, and that they catch them off guard with a run or two. A little bit of mystery would be a welcome part of a Test that is already being prematurely written off as predictable.
England XV to face New Zealand: Mike Brown; Marland Yarde, Manu Tuilagi, Kyle Eastmond, Jonny May; Freddie Burns, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Rob Webber, David Wilson, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw (c), Ben Morgan.
England bench: Joe Gray, Henry Thomas, Matt Mullan, Dave Attwood, Tom Johnson, Ben Youngs, Danny Cipriani, Chris Pennell
All Blacks XV to Face England: Israel Dagg; Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Cory Jane; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Tony Woodcock, Dane Coles, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Liam Messam, Richie McCaw (c), Jerome Kaino.
All Blacks bench: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Victor Veto, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.
Read all about Danny Care, Danny Cipriani and Israel Dagg in the latest edition of Rugby World– and you can find out where to buy your copy here or download our free magazine finder app here. Plus, download the digital edition here.