It can be all too easy to laud New Zealand for their black magic, to marvel at their sorcery and wonder precisely what kind of deal they have made with the devil. On Saturday, however, we may just witness the greatest trick they ever pulled.
The All Blacks celebrate their 125th anniversary on Saturday in what, on the face of it, appears to be a glorified trial match for a number of the New Zealanders – there are 10 in total – representing the Barbarians. Julian Savea heads the queue but Richie Mo'unga, Vince Aso and George Bridge also fall into the category of players on, or approaching, the fringes of the All Blacks squad.
For Steve Hansen, casting an eye over Savea and co on the training paddock is one thing, doing so when they are lining up against his All Blacks is quite another. In addition, it will be in front of a bumper crowd that may reach 70,000, it takes place on England's turf, New Zealand having turned down the Rugby Football Union's belated advances for a showdown, and the visitors will bank a few million quid for the privilege.
Hansen was right to suggest this week England “may want to share a bit” – a reference to the RFU’s reluctance to split revenue during the official Test window – but he might have been advised to acknowledge this match significantly swells New Zealand coffers.
For while we will have to take at face value the laments of Ian Foster, the All Blacks' assistant coach, that there are no home nations players in the Barbarians squad, all things considered, the visitors have landed on their feet. Furthermore, the NZRU chief executive, Steve Tew, will no doubt enjoy his afternoon, having been told to "go and build a bigger stadium" by the RFU last year.
Movable of feasts
That is not to suggest this was the plan all along. Indeed, this Barbarians squad has been the most movable of feasts. In May the idea was a World XV, featuring a stellar cast of names such as
, and two months later it was touted as an unofficial decider following the British & Irish Lions’ drawn Test series in New Zealand. It was always planned there would be a tranche of Premiership players – indeed, an agreement was reached with
Limited – and even hope some England players left out of the training camp in Portugal may be available.
The raft of injuries in the Premiership has left coaches, directors of rugby and owners too wary of releasing their players, however, and it raises the wider question of the Barbarians' place on the landscape. This week Robbie Deans, who again takes charge of the invitational side, talked of how the Barbarians represent "the essence of rugby" but the cluttered calendars of both hemispheres would appear to threaten the relevance of a team that have always cherished their amateur ideals.
The South African hooker Adriaan Strauss, one of Deans's vice-captains, would disagree, however. He retired from international rugby aged 30 last year under the strain of captaincy during the Springboks' turmoil but has "rediscovered his love of the game" thanks to the Barbarians. Yet it is clear the Barbarians no longer works as a drinking club for seasoned old pros. Social media were awash with Halloween fancy dress pictures this week but Deans seems to have discovered the correct formula of extra-curricular activity without too much excess, having overseen a highly creditable 31-31 draw against South Africa this time last year.
Just as is the case this weekend, it was not a team littered with big-name draws, rather youngsters looking to make the step up to international level and that is one of the key roles of the modern Barbarians, according to Deans: “The group we had last year didn’t have many caps in it but they produced some great rugby and that’s what it’s about. Now you’re seeing a lot of them coming through internationally.”
As is Deans’s way, there is also a Crusaders spine to the squad, and an understated strength, albeit with a Super Rugby flavour. It may be pushing it to suggest the BaaBaas will shock the All Blacks, as they did in 2009, but they have the capacity to be competitive with Savea a potentially potent weapon.
The All Blacks, meanwhile, are missing a few players themselves but have the self-awareness to sense the occasion and showcase a bit of that magic – the hooker Asafo Aumua is certainly one to watch – in a way that Jones’s callow England side frankly did not back in May.
As Hansen observed, it is largely down to the British public’s thirst for live sport that Twickenham will be considerably more than half-full. No doubt he realises that, because of how the cards have fallen, New Zealand’s glass is too. Guardian Service