Go out there and do us proud! Lancaster's men have to show more progress against mighty All Blacks
22:00 GMT, 30 November 2012
It’s not quite mission impossible, but it is not far off. As an indication of what Stuart Lancaster’s callow side are up against on Saturday, it is useful to consider how difficult even England’s greatest team found it to crack the All Blacks.
The squad assembled and honed into world-beaters by Sir Clive Woodward twice managed to lower the Kiwi colours in Test combat, once at home by three points, the other away by two. Aside from a draw in 1997, those two wins represent the only English success against New Zealand in the professional era.
All smiles: Chris Ashton (left) shares a joke with Danny Care in training on Friday
The countries have clashed 16 times in
that period and the All Blacks have prevailed on all but three
occasions. Saturday afternoon’s QBE International at Twickenham presents
Steve Hansen’s team with the opportunity to extend the winning sequence
in this fixture into double figures – in addition to the small matter
of finishing 2012 unbeaten and as peerless world champions who have
raised their game.
Lancaster and his assistant coaches frequently highlight the gulf in experience between their side and the opposition. This time the comparison is staggering: England have a tally of 206 Test caps in their starting XV and New Zealand have 788.
Those two professional-era victories came when Woodward was able to send out a side armed to the teeth with Test pedigree and nous, a side finely-tuned over several years at the sharp end of the game. Even then, they were pushed to the limit by rivals with an engrained aversion to taking a beating in the iconic shirts which serve as a focal point for their country’s identity.
This is how it's done: Ben Cohen dives in during England's 31-28 victory over New Zealand in 2002, the last time they beat the All Blacks at HQ
The backdrop to Saturday’s contest suggests it will be no contest at all. As per annual tradition, New Zealand have swept aside Scotland, Italy and Wales, while England come into this match on the back of defeats at the hands of Australia and South Africa. New Zealand are ranked No 1 in the world, England are fifth. New Zealand are settled, have most of their leading men available and bring with them momentum and belief. England have chopped and changed their selections, are without a number of leading players and also without the confidence born of recent success.
Most of their side do not know what it is to face the All Blacks, let alone beat them. Yet, the lack of expectation among the capacity crowd could work in their favour. The script says England will lose. The bookies have them down as 6-1 underdogs and are giving them a 15-point handicap.
Strong favourites: Richie McCaw leads the All Blacks out at Twickenham on Saturday
Experience up front
The New Zealand front row have won more caps (239) than the entire England team…
Team caps: 206. Pack caps: 99. Ave per man: 13.7.
Team: 788. Pack: 470. Ave per man: 52.5.
All week, coaches and players have declared that this is no lost cause, that the men they will face are mere mortals, that they are vulnerable, beatable. Of course, there is truth in this upbeat out-look, but there is wishful thinking, too. If Hansen’s men hit their stride, England cannot match them, but they can emerge with credit, nonetheless.
After having to contend with stifling pressure in the games against the Wallabies and Springboks, that element is absent this time.
So the mind-set should be different, as flanker Tom Wood claimed. ‘To some extent the pressure’s off us,’ he said. ‘It would be a huge scalp and would salvage what has been a disappointing campaign in terms of results. We’re going to play without fear, meet them head-on and make sure that, win or lose, they know they’ve been in a game.’
In that sense, Chris Robshaw and Co should take their cue from the England team who took on the All Blacks in November 2005.
While the visitors wound up as 23-19 victors, captain Martin Corry and the rest of the pack, in particular, rose to the occasion to such an extent that the Kiwi forwards were almost blown away.
No pressure: Wood (centre) believes that England have nothing to lose
Kick-off: 2.30pm at Twickenham.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland).
TV & Radio: LIVE on Sky Sports 1
from 1.30pm, highlights on BBC3
from 7pm. BBC Radio 5 Live from 2.30pm.
In the closing minutes the result was in the balance and there was an overpowering sense of an England side, supposedly inferior to their opponents, defiantly refusing to bend the knee.
That is the minimum requirement on Saturday. ‘Hopefully after this game they will think of us as a highly-skilled, competitive, determined side,’ said Wood. ‘The best way to combat all their skill and flair is to have the ball and play it our way. We believe we can win and we’re going to absolutely throw our hearts and souls into it.’
Ultimately, sheer spirit and endeavour won’t suffice. Up front, England need to surpass the intensity they reached in trumping South Africa’s vaunted pack.
New Zealand are not so imposing in their tight five that the hosts can’t steal a minor edge in the scrum and tight collisions, although the great Richie McCaw will be a familiar spectre at the breakdown. If he is to be nullified, the likes of Wood and Joe Launchbury must keep hitting rucks with the same ferocity as they did a week ago.
Key role: Launchbury (centre) was outstanding last week
After all the over-zealous criticism of Robshaw, England will be alert to every nuance of their decision-making, but this can’t turn into a box-ticking exercise. It remains a fine balance but Ben Youngs should still be encouraged to tap-and-go, with the onus on Chris Ashton to revive his handy knack of tracking any half-break and capitalising. While Lancaster’s team need to be precise, that must not translate into a cagey approach or their slim chance of an upset will fade to nothing.
What England cannot hope to match is the All Blacks’ ability to strike from deep with their lethal counter-attacking game, conducted by superstar stand-off Dan Carter and his cunning right-hand man in the creative department, Conrad Smith.
Even if Brad Barritt can orchestrate the greatest defensive rearguard action produced by the national team in years, it is unlikely to be enough. The best hope of England responding in kind lies in giving Manu Tuilagi front-foot ball at full throttle and keeping Alex Goode busy in the line, but that will require the collective effort to click in a manner not seen so far in this difficult month.
The danger lies in England falling between two stools – veering uncertainly from daring to damage-limitation, from cavalier abandon to caution.
They surely will not win, but the manner of their performance in defeat will say much about whether they are heading in the right direction, as they claim, or not really heading anywhere at all.