It’s the big one then, at least for England fans, as the visit of the All Blacks, aka the most electrifying team in sports entertainment, is always a special occasion for northern hemisphere sides with the Red Rose having not played New Zealand since 2014. For the world champions, these matches are an ongoing exercise in displaying just how good they are … and 9.8 times out of 10 it’s something special.
But far from being a exhibition, not only is this Test match rugby for goodness sake, it’s also less than 12 months until the ruddy World Cup, where the All Blacks will be aiming for three in a row. Had this match occurred last year we’d be talking it up as a contest between the best two teams in the world, instead though that will happen next weekend in Dublin, as England under Eddie Jones maybe haven’t quite fallen off a cliff, but at least dangled over the precipice following the peaks of 2016. While, whisper it quietly (or probably best not to, you don’t want to look stupid around your mates), even New Zealand have shown some slight fallibilities, prompting questions around a few individuals in their team.
Last week’s victory for England over South Africa cannot be overstated in its timing and significance for Jones and his players. Although, for all the celebrations, it was very much a performance of two halves – England 2018 v England 2016. They emerged from a first 40 minutes in which they were comprehensively second-best (yes, there were injuries but it was a largely inexperienced Springbok side) to sneak past their opponents 12-11, owing to some smart kicking, aggression and intensity at the breakdown and more purposeful defence in the second half. All those qualities will need to be raised a level again today, and then some, over the entire 80 minutes plus they’ll need to curb those penalties and find some penetration in attack as you don’t beat the All Blacks without scoring some tries. Preferably lots of them. Oh hai, Chris Ashton!
Just ask South Africa, who ran over five in Wellington in September and still won by a narrow 36-34. That defeat being one of only two in 21 matches since the tied Lions series. Or Japan, who scored 31 points against the All Blacks last weekend … but then shipped 69 points at the other end. They are a relentless winning machine and in 2018, alone, Steve Hansen’s side are averaging 41.6 points a game. Against an England defence that, at times last week, granted Handre Pollard and Damian De Allende the freedom of west London, that spells pain.
But talking up New Zealand is easy so let’s clutch at some straws: Beauden Barrett wasn’t at his absolute best during the Rugby Championship (although he remains pretty damn’ good) and his goalkicking can be dodgy (although 11 from 12 post-Wellington implies some serious work has been done), Damian McKenzie can help with that but his defence at full-back isn’t quite at the level of Ben Smith, who’s been shunted out to the right wing; there are fitness concerns around outside centre Jack Goodhue and if Sonny Bill Williams, who’s been selected at inside centre, doesn’t make a significant impact this afternoon on the ground where he made his Test debut in 2010, there is a school of thought that says he may never play for New Zealand again. That’s because, of course, they have such ridiculous depth (Anton Lienert-Brown hasn’t even made the matchday squad) and, no doubt, even if the SBW Show doesn’t turn up, by the final whistle we’ll all be extolling the virtues of Goodhue, Richie Mo’unga, Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane etc.
Kick-off is at 3pm GMT