Don’t get me wrong, I do like football. I’m sitting here watching the Spain v Netherlands match, and it’s a great game. Losing me some money, admittedly, but otherwise I’m enjoying it. But every World Cup I lose a bit of faith in the round-ball game. And it’s not just because of the high-concentration of overpaid primadonnas who collapse at the faintest touch of their well-manicured finger nails, or the fact that every TV advert from beer to tampons seems to revolve around football. It’s the fact that it pretends like it’s the most spectacular show on earth, but it isn’t.
OK, that is entirely subjective, admittedly. But when you have England taking on the All Blacks in Dunedin, you won’t find that sort of brutal intensity or passion anywhere else; you don’t need pyrotechnics to get fireworks from this game. And after a first Test where an under-strength England pushed the World Champions all the way, there is a real sense that this is going to be a humdinger between two of the global heavyweights of the world game.
For the hosts, there will be a lot of frustration and anger at their performance. Steve Hansen effectively said that everybody deserved to be dropped after that display – which is perhaps a tad harsh of Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith and Liam Messam – but you can be sure that that sentiment will be channelled in a way that makes them very, very dangerous. They may be missing Israel Dagg due to knocks taken in last week’s game, but they are gaining Julian Savea, one of the most destructive wingers in world rugby, and one who has a happy knack of scoring against the English. Hansen will have spent the week making sure that they don’t make the same mistakes as last week –eradicating the inaccuracies and handling errors. But to say that the mistakes were unenforced would be to do England a disservice – the set piece was an area where the men in black struggled, and that sets the tone for the rest of their game. And that’s an area which they will expect to have fixed for this week.
It’s been a quiet build up for the All Blacks in comparison to England – and that’s not surprising, considering the changes Stuart Lancaster has rung, with several players now available. Kyle Eastmond and James Haskell – both impressive last week – are unlucky to miss out entirely from the squad, with Freddie Burns also unfortunate to be relegated to the bench. But the guys coming in – Luther Burrell, Owen Farrell and Tom Wood – would have felt equally hard done by if they were not able to re-fill their spots that they only vacated due to their successful club seasons. Courtney Lawes will certainly feel that way – outstanding during the latter stages of the season, I feel that he deserves his spot in the team ahead of either Joe Launchbury or Geoff Parling, although the Leicester man was imperious in the set piece last week.
But all these changes pale into insignificance with Lancaster’s gutsiest call of his coaching career – to move Manu Tuilagi onto the wing. The giant centre was in bulldozing form last week, beating 5 players and making a team-high 86 metres with the ball in hand – to move him out of position to accommodate Billy Twelvetrees and Burrell seems very risky. Are Twelvetrees and Burrell that important, that much of a shoe in, that they justify naming a backline with 2 players out of position (with Burrell usually a 12). Will Manu learn the intricacies of wing play, the positioning and aerial ability, in less than a week? I doubt many could. If I was Steve Hansen, I would pepper the Tigers centre with high balls all day long and probe kicks in behind him. My gut feeling is that Tuilagi’s selection there is a mistake – but hey, there’s always the unknown factor. It could turn out to be a stroke of genius.
And there are a lot of unknown factors going into the game on Saturday. Will Manu on the wing work? Will New Zealand fix their set piece? Can the ‘aura’, banged on about so much by the British press, finally be broken? All of those factors, and many more, leave me in no doubt that the real drama is in fact happening on the other side of the Pacific to Brazil.
In contrast to the all-change for England, Steve Hansen has made just one enforced change, with the returning Julian Savea replacing Israel Dagg, allowing Ben Smith to cover 15 and Savea to slot onto the left wing. 2013 IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read is still not deemed fit enough to play, meaning Jerome Kaino and his pet chin continue to deputise at number 8.
Starting Line up: Ben Smith; Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, 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.
Aaron Cruden. The diminutive fly half showed some early signs of rustiness but was – crucially – flawless off the tee as he kept the scoreboard ticking over, and his authority grew as the game went on – reaching a point where he took a quick tap and went for the try in the last 5 minutes instead of a penalty; a decision that proved both brave and correct. This week, however, he will have one very clear brief: bomb Tuilagi. Obviously I don’t mean with incendiaries – that would be illegal – but I do mean up-and-unders, where I expect to see Ben Smith leading the chase and attempting to dominate the less agile man in the air. It is an area where the Kiwis could get some real joy but Cruden better be accurate – if he kicks too deep or too short he risks giving Tuilagi space to run, and that will not end well.
Stuart Lancaster has made the biggest call of his career by moving Manu Tuilagi – his most potent attacking weapon – onto the right wing for his first professional appearance on the flanks since 2010. There is just one change to the pack, with Tom Wood coming in for James Haskell, whilst only Mike Brown remains in the same position in the backline. First choice half backs Danny Care and Owen Farrell return, as do centres Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, with Marlande Yarde swapping wings and Tuilagi shifting out one – Johnny May and Kyle Eastmond drop out the squad entirely. The bench now looks like England’s ally, with Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola and Chris Ashton adding some serious firepower and experience.
Starting Line up: Mike Brown, Manu Tuilagi, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Marland Yarde, Owen Farrell, Danny Care; Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury, David Wilson, Rob Webber, Joe Marler.Subs: Dylan Hartley, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns, Chris Ashton.
Danny Care. Aside from one very notable ‘butter-fingers’ moment, Ben Youngs had a very decent game last week, but there is no doubt who the man in possession of the 9 shirt is at the moment. Care is the man with the confidence – no, arrogance (and I mean that in the best possible way) – that every 9 needs; a sign they are on top of their game. England will only catch New Zealand out if they can get their defence out of kilter and disorganised and that means Care has to be as lively as he has been for club and country over the last year, fizzing around the breakdown and taking quick taps. There’s no danger of England being accused of slowing the game down with Care on the pitch.
Julian Savea v Manu Tuilagi. At the risk of seeming unimaginative, I’ve picked the obvious choice and – let’s be honest – it is easily the standout clash on the field. Two of the most destructive runners in world rugby are going head to head, but one of them has a distinct advantage. Savea has been on the wing all of his professional career, and running in tries for fun from out wide, and he knows his role inside – Tuilagi doesn’t. Savea will look to expose the big man, perhaps looking to his centres to draw him in and give him the outside, where I suspect he probably has an extra yard of pace. If Tuilagi stays disciplined though, then we are in for one hell of an encounter – I back the England man to win any one-on-one battles with the ball in hand – but it will all depend on his work rate and how often he can get himself in the game. The simple fact is that whoever of these two gets their hands on the ball the most will cause the most damage.
Perhaps the easy thing to think in this one is that, now the cavalry has arrived, England can take the next step on their World Cup journey and beat the All Blacks in their back yard. And to some extent that makes sense – not only have established conquerors of the All Blacks such as Owen Farrell and Tom Wood returned, but the England bench actually looks – arguably – stronger than that of their opponents. But I cannot help but feel that England will have woken the dragon with their impudently impressive display last week – the All Blacks will not be as sloppy again, and will be hungry to put the visitors in their place. I also have the very nasty suspicion that Tuilagi be exploited aerially, but I hope I’m proven wrong. Either way, this one will prove to be an even bigger test than the first. New Zealand by 8.