Expectation can be a very nasty thing. Which is why I try to avoid it most of the time by setting the expectation level very low – that way, I can only succeed. By way of example, I was forced to play cricket with my office against another office the other day. Now, I like cricket, but I am hopeless at it – as in, truly abysmal. Batting, fielding, bowling, the lot of it. I made sure that everybody knew this before the game started and therefore, when I did bowl a dot ball and hit a whole seven runs, I was roundly applauded and congratulated on my achievements; I was still awful, but not as horrifically bad as I had made out. But England are finding what it's like on the other side of the coin in New Zealand right now.
When the men in white arrived three weeks ago, there was a suitable sense of dread in the air; a view that we might be in for another 'tour from hell', especially as we were missing half our front line players for the First Test. One very gutsy performance later – which may have yielded a win had it not been for some contentious refereeing decisions – and the feeling changed. Maybe England could pull off the unthinkable and score a series win in New Zealand. Of course, we all know what happened last week, as the visitors were undone by 30 minutes of All Black brilliance, but it was the reaction that surprised me – the first rumblings of criticism, despite the difference being just 1 point. It's the heavy price you pay for expectation – but Stuart Lancaster's side wouldn't have it any other way.
The All Blacks are used to it, of course – they are the benchmark. They have the luxury of being able to lose veteran Conrad Smith to injury and still be able to bring in his ready-made replacement, Malakai Fekitoa. Now, this kid is dynamite (see below) and is another example of the frankly unbelievable All Black conveyor belt of talent, and I have no doubt that Fekitoa will eventually become a fixture in the side. But there is no doubt Smith is a loss – he's a captain of the backline and is the glue that holds the defensive line together; Ma'a Nonu must now step up. But it's another Smith, Ben, who holds the key to the All Black magic – if he is given front foot ball and space, especially off turnover ball, he will carve any side apart. England must be wary, and that's before they even start worrying about the return of the marauding and inspirational Kieran Read, who adds another element to their pack's attacking game.
The spine of the Kiwi side remains the same though, but the same can't be said about England who have completely rejigged – partly down to injury, partly down to form – but in my view this is their best line up of the Test series. Manu Tuilagi is recalled from the wing and starts at centre, where he caused so much trouble for the Kiwis in his last appearance, when he shrugged off Fekitoa within seconds of the Highlanders man getting onto the pitch. He'll be charged with doing more of the same tomorrow morning in order to give the youngster a rough ride, but it's in defence where England need to be ultra-sharp. Their blitz lost its zip during that 30 minute period as heads went down and you cannot, under any circumstances, allow this All Blacks side to run at you. This game will be about leaders standing up and driving the side through and, although the loss of Geoff Parling is a big one in terms of his influence and ability, this is the game where the captains need to stand up and take the game by the scruff of the neck.
Because England does expect. And they've earned that burden.
New Zealand Team News
Steve Hansen makes just two changes to his line-up, with the rather handy Kieran Read deemed to be fully fit after a concussion related injury. The number 8 slots into the back row with Jerome Kaino moving to 6, with Liam Messam unlucky to drop to the bench. Elsewhere, injury to Conrad Smith means that raw talent Malakai Fekitoa earns his first start in an All Black jersey having only earned his first cap in the first test. Ryan Crotty comes onto the bench.
Starting Line-up: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Tony Woodcock, Dane Coles, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (capt), Kieran ReadSubs: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liam Messam, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty
Malakai Fekitoa. It's not easy to fill the boots of Conrad 'the Snake' Smith, but if anybody can it's this kid. He's got jet-fuelled boots and good upper body power, making him the kind of player who can make the hard yards and also create something from nothing as well. He's got a beautiful, swerving running style that is a nightmare for defenders, and so England will be closing his space down quickly, meaning he'll have to keep his head under pressure. Easier said than done when Manu Tuilagi is the bloke charging up to put you onto the ground, and Fekitoa will certainly have a baptism of fire in defence as well, where he will have to focus on his communication with Nonu to avoid leaving gaps for Tuilagi and Eastmond to exploit.
Freddie Burns will start at fly-half for England in one of eight changes to the side for Saturday's third and final Test against New Zealand in Hamilton. Burns will replace the injured Owen Farrell and is preferred to Danny Cipriani, who starts on the bench. Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton, Kyle Eastmond, Dylan Hartley, and Billy Vunipola all return, with Manu Tuilagi moving back into the centres after the wing-switch failed to yield the desired results. Stuart Lancaster has also been rocked by the loss of the inspirational Geoff Parling as a late change, meaning Courtney Lawes effectively replaces him despite originally being intended to step in for Joe Launchbury.
Starting Line-up: Mike Brown, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Kyle Eastmond, Marland Yarde, Freddie Burns, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (capt), Billy VunipolaSubs: Rob Webber, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, Joe Launchbury, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Danny Cipriani, Luther Burrell
Courtney Lawes. We didn’t see too much of the human missile last week but Lawes ended the season in sensational style putting in a man-of-the-match (in my book) display against Saracens in the Premiership final. He'll have been frustrated at him limited opportunities so far on this Tour, but now he has a chance to really cause some carnage. We saw last weekend how fluent the All Blacks can be when they get into their stride – Lawes' role has got to be to hunt Cruden down and force him to play deeper and deeper for fear of getting hit with the ball, forcing the All Blacks back behind the gainline and giving the England defence more time to organise.
Kieran Read v Billy Vunipola. The importance of Read cannot be underestimated. The 2013 IRB World Player of the Year combines a superb athleticism with one of the sharpest brains in the sport, making him equally comfortable at taking the ball into contact as well as running smart lines and freeing his unnervingly dexterous arms for the offload. He's up against the younger Vunipola brother from Saracens, and Billy is – to be fair – a slightly different sort of 8. You won't find Vunipola attempting grubbers or fizzing 20 metre passes across the midfield, but you will see him carrying hard, drawing in at least 2 or 3 defenders and searching for the support runner on his shoulder. Read is very much a link man between the aggressive play of the tight five and the more fluent runners out wide, and England will need to target him and test his sharpness after his injury if they are to throw a spanner into the All Black machine. Billy, meanwhile, could do with taking a leaf out of Read's book and start looking to influence the game away from the heavy traffic – he is a powerful runner around the fringes, but we saw in the Six Nations that he is even more devastating in the wider channels where he can open up some big gaps.
Both sets of coaches – and players – have spent a lot of the week proclaiming that this one is not a 'dead rubber'. It may be hard to argue in the context of the series, which has been lost, but there is a hell of a lot riding on this for both sides going forward. I think if England come close and lose again, then there really will be a nagging doubt in their mind about whether or not they really are good enough to take on the best in the world. The Kiwis will be wanting to build and build from now until the World Cup, and with raw talent like Fekitoa coming in, this is the ideal time to introduce them to a winning environment. A lot of people seem to think that New Zealand have this in the bag, but I'm not so sure and I think England might just need – and want this – a fraction more. I've picked the All Blacks by big margins for both previous Tests, and England have come far closer than I would have envisaged. With that in mind – sod it – I'm going to go for the rarest of occasions…an away win in New Zealand. England by 2.