It’s not very often that an England fan can congratulate a Kiwi on the build up to an England Test Series in the All Black’s backyard, but Brodie Retallick, the All Black lock, has added himself to Stuart Lancaster’s Christmas Card list ahead of the First Test at Eden Park. When quizzed, big Brodie couldn’t name one England player, with the dismal effort of “Michael Lawes” (we assume he means Courtney) being the closest he got to picking out any of the individuals who will be trying to dismantle him over the next 3 weeks. Lancaster can strike one item from the “to-do” list before the first test – I think the team talk writes itself.
But perhaps the Kiwi has a point. I mean, who are this rabble coming over to take one the World Champions? The Invincibles of 2013? If you didn’t watch Premiership rugby regularly, would you really have a clue who the likes of Rob Webber, Marland Yarde, Kyle Eastmond or Freddie Burns were? It’s been more than well documented that this is a classic example of how NOT to organise a tour – with a schedule tight enough to exclude players from both of England’s premier clubs as they battled it out last weekend in the Premiership final. It means Lancaster has had his hand forced into selecting an XV for the first test that is inexperienced at the highest level, with 4th choice picks involved in some spots. It’s easy to see how some New Zealanders are already making dismissive noises about this England side’s chances.
I say let them underestimate England. This is still a side with enough firepower to scare any, with Mike Brown, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Launchbury all pushing World XV spots when in top form. Add to that to experience, nous and work rate of Chris Robshaw and Geoff Parling, the Kiwi-knowledge of James Haskell, and the unpredictability of the likes of Marland Yarde, Kyle Eastmond and Freddie Burns, and you have a side that has the potential to excite. So much will depend on whether a side depleted of some of their most physical characters can muscle up to the Kiwi pack, which is always so dominant at home, and whether the backline can settle in quickly under huge pressure. There is a real sense that there is nothing to lose for this England side. Nobody expects.
The same can’t be said about the All Blacks, though – and I mean that as the highest compliment. Despite the above, I expect them to dominate. In addition to the fact that every single player – including the front row – has the ball handling prowess of an England halfback (as a minimum requirement), they also have an established roster of world class players. With power players such as Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam,and Ma’a Nonu providing the punch and Israel Dagg and Ben Smith sprinkling in the magic, there is not one area where the New Zealanders do not threaten. And I say that even though the almighty Dan Carter is kicking back on a beach, even though that Aaron Cruden hasn’t been in great form for the Chiefs, and even though that the great Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith have been looking a little jaded of late. I am measuring them to unbelievably high expectations, and I fully expect them to still be too good for this England pick n’mix XV.
But who cares about expectation. Lancaster’s men have shoved expectations down the throat of critics before, and they will believe – genuinely believe – they can do it again. As an England fan, there’s still plenty to be excited about and – regardless of the result – I reckon Mr Retallick might be remembering a few more names following Saturday night.
New Zealand have recalled number eight Jerome Kaino in their team for the first test against England in Auckland on Saturday, with World Player of the Year Kieran Read recovering from concussion. Three uncapped players are named on the replacements' bench by the world champions – lock Patrick Tuipulotu, scrumhalf TJ Perenara and utility back Malakai Fekitoa – whilst Julian Savea and Dan Carter are also both unavailable.
Starting Line up: Israel Dagg; Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Cory Jane, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock.Subs: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Victor Vito, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.
Jerome Kaino. OK, he may be replacing the best number 8 in world rugby, but Kaino is no lame replacement and boasts a brutally powerful defensive game in addition to having arguably the most impressive chin in world rugby. But Jerome is going to have to show off the attacking side of his game on Saturday if he is to fill the void left by Read; we know he is a wall in defence, but can he get his hands on the ball, run hard, create space and offload as Read does. Neither McCaw or Messam are particularly attack focused – which is why the balance works so well with the Canterbury 8 – so the Blues man must adapt his mentality if the All Blacks back row unit is to reach its usual devastating potential.
England Team News
Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care has been ruled out of England's first Test against New Zealand on Saturday after jarring his shoulder in training. Ben Youngs will replace Care to form a half-back partnership with Leicester team-mate Freddie Burns. Northampton's Lee Dickson is promoted to the bench just three days after arriving in New Zealand. Lancaster fields a fourth-choice midfield of Burns and Kyle Eastmond, while Rob Webber, James Haskell and Geoff Parling all come into the pack. There are two uncapped players on the bench in Worcester full-back Chris Pennell and Harlequins hooker Joe Gray, while Sale fly-half Danny Cipriani is in an England match-day squad for the first time in six years.
Starting Line up: Mike Brown (Harlequins); Marland Yarde (Harlequins), Manu Tuilagi, (Leicester Tigers), Kyle Eastmond (Bath), Jonny May (Gloucester); Freddie Burns (Leicester Tigers), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers); Joe Marler (Harlequins), Rob Webber (Bath), David Wilson (Bath); Joe Launchbury (London Wasps), Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers); James Haskell (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), Ben Morgan (Gloucester).Subs: Joe Gray (Harlequins), Matt Mullan (London Wasps), Henry Thomas (Sale Sharks), Dave Attwood (Bath), Tom Johnson (Exeter Chiefs), Lee Dickson (Northampton), Danny Cipriani (Sale Sharks), Chris Pennell (Worcester)
Manu Tuilagi. He might still just be a pup in terms of age, but Tuilagi is now the experienced head in the England backline, and it’s time for his leadership skills to go up a notch. He and Youngs will form the nous on either side of a very inexperienced back 10-12 partnership, and it is absolutely vital he demonstrates the communication skills picked up from Anthony Allen at Leicester. In terms of general play though, he is the one player the All Blacks know all about – and England must use this to their advantage. Launch Tuilagi in between the 12-13 channel and attempt to draw in Nonu and Conrad Smith – the defensive organiser – and you will create opportunities elsewhere. And, of course, Aaron Cruden should prepare himself for one of the more obvious physical mis-matches in international rugby.
Brodie Retallick v Joe Launchbury. Retallick may not know who he is (apparently) but big Joe won’t care about that. During the Six Nations we saw the young Wasp weigh in with a series of monumental performances, driven by a ferocious work-rate and eye-catching athleticism around the field. But whilst Launchbury was partnered by the ultra-physical Courtney Lawes (or Michael Lawes, according to Retallick) during that tournament, the baby-faced second row links up with the intelligent-but-less-imposing Geoff Parling. It means that Launchbury must shake off that cherub-like demeanour and weigh in with a bruising display against a typically hard-nosed All Black lock, in the shape of Retallick. The All Blacks are expected to outmuscle the England in the tight, with their lock pairing a key component, but if Launchbury can help his side at least achieve parity in this area then the New Zealanders might just lose a little bit of that aura.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly (there must be someone apart from my dad...) will know that I am an eternal – and often hapless – optimist. But it’s hard to look past the obvious for this one. The All Blacks are too experienced and too slick, even though they are not at their best individually for the moment. Chuck in their phenomenal home record and you would be forgiven for thinking that this England side will have less of a chance than I have of marrying Scarlett Johansson. But that’s doing Lancaster’s men a discredit. Yes, there are a lot of unknown factors in the side, but we know that each and every one of them can do a job on their day, and there’s still sufficient experience in the side to lay down a challenge. For England to win, they will need at their best and the All Blacks to be well below that level; the problem is, the All Blacks very rarely stoop that low. New Zealand by 11.