England have a steep mountain to climb against the All Blacks
The winning team at Twickenham today will be presented with the Sir Edmund Hillary Shield, a prize which never fails to remind English supporters of the steep challenge ahead. New Zealand are chasing their 10th successive victory since 2003, having beaten their hosts by at least 10 points in nine of those fixtures. Instead of rising to the occasion England have barely made it beyond base camp for the best part of a decade.
Consecutive defeats by Australia and South Africa, albeit narrow ones, do not bode well. Third time lucky? International rugby does not operate that way, particularly when the All Blacks are around. So far in 2012 they have scored 47 Test tries; the next most prolific try-scorers are South Africa with 23. England’s tally of 20 in 11 games neatly sums up the attacking gulf between the countries.
As a result there is only one team drowning in expectation, which could make Stuart Lancaster’s team potentially awkward opponents if they somehow keep the All Blacks quiet for the first hour.
A sick bug has been affecting New Zealand’s preparations and England’s dander is up following last week’s focus on Chris Robshaw’s decision-making in the closing minutes against the Springboks.
“It’s about learning your lessons,” said Robshaw, determined to end a chastening week on a happier note. “You can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself.”
Nor can England make the mistake of allowing their visitors to show exactly why they are the No1 team in the world. As Scotland were reminded at Murrayfield, no one is better at exploiting space than the peerless Dan Carter, while such team-mates as Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Julian Savea are sharp enough to make any defence sweat buckets, particularly with a dry ball in hand.
To make matters worse there is no more skilled tackle-area operator than Richie McCaw, who is keen to sign off on a positive note before he leaves for a well-earned sabbatical.
“With the likes of McCaw on the field you can never lose concentration or he’ll make you pay,” admitted Tom Wood, who will be part of the English back row attempting to reverse the black tide at the breakdown. “Teams have developed ploys to combat him but he’s evolved again. Stuart has talked to us about winning the space beyond the contact so there is no opportunity for him to turn over the ball.”
The other prerequisite, as ever, is to front up physically and discover precisely how much energy the All Blacks have stockpiled at the end of a long post-World Cup year. It may not sound a particularly sophisticated plan but Wood is not about to apologise.
“We’re going to play without fear, meet them head-on and make sure, win or lose, that they know they’ve been in a game. They’re very good but they’re human and they’re beatable. We believe we can win and we’re going to throw our hearts and souls into it. The best way to combat all their skill and flair is to have the ball and play it our way.”
Wood, whose partner hails from New Zealand, is also looking forward to the pre-match haka, having spent a formative spell in the rugby-obsessed region of north Otago in the south island.
“Guys were milking cows at 4am but they would never dream of missing a Tuesday night training session. Everyone lives and breathes rugby and gives you feedback, right down to the woman serving pies in the shop down the road.She was pretty critical of my technique at the breakdown, telling me to get six inches lower and get past the ball. That’s how much it means to New Zealand people.”
During his time away Wood also helped out at Waitaki Boys High School in Oamaru and was given a send-off he will forever remember.
“On my leaving day the whole school were out on the main field in front of the old traditional buildings and performed the haka for me. It’ll have just as positive an effect on me this weekend as it does them. To some extent the pressure’s off us a little bit. It would be a huge scalp and would really salvage what has been a disappointing campaign in terms of results.”
Another defeat, on the other hand, would leave England with only a one-sided victory over Fiji to show for their autumn efforts. Developing teams need the occasional bit of luck and both Lancaster and Robshaw could now use a dollop or two, rather than waiting until Australia, Argentina and New Zealand return to London next November.
They can be relied upon to start strongly but the world champions are always a good bet for at least a couple of tries. Barring something remarkable, it is hard to see the Hillary Shield slipping from the All Blacks’ tight grip.