New zeal of a force to be feared

Chris Rea believes the All Blacks' ability to adapt may prove a decisive factor; Final countdown in Cape Town: England's tried and tested formula faces its most serious examination
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The Independent Online
FOR England or for rugby? That, according to our Antipodean cousins, is the stark choice facing the game this afternoon. For the All Blacks, this rugby safari has always been more than a quest to regain the position of world eminence they achieved in the inaugural tournament in 1987. It is a crusade to save the union game in New Zealand from ruinous plunder by the professional code. From a state of peaceful co-existence with an unfashionable and meekly compliant rival, it is now all-out war, a fight to the death.

Defeat by England in Cape Town this afternoon would deal a mortal blow to the union game in New Zealand where rugby league has, in a startlingly short time, grown to be a big threat. With its voracious appetite, league is set to devour several more All Blacks after the World Cup, including Jonah Lomu, Josh Kronfeld and perhaps Andrew Mehrtens. Victory for England, and administrators fear that there might be devastation within the ranks of the New Zealand players. Not only would there be little hope of competing financially with the lucrative and, in some cases, ludicrous offers being made by league, but the game as a spectacle, which the All Blacks have been striving to promote as a counter-attraction to the more simplistically entertaining league code, would be imperilled.

The New Zealand management, if they haven't yet said as much in public, share the Australian view that England's style is one- dimensionally dull and ultimately self-defeating. There isn't the slightest doubt, however, that it has been hugely successful and if it wins the World Cup, many Antipodeans believe their work towards making the game more spectator-friendly would be seriously undermined. None of which concerns England one jot, except for the fact that this afternoon the All Blacks, imbued with the importance of the occasion, and cast in the role of the game's saviours, can be expected to carry out their task with fanatical zeal.

A number of those Englishmen playing today have first-hand experience of the motivational power of fear. It was that same primal force which carried them through their attritional quarter-final against France in Paris four years ago. The very idea of returning home to work on the following Monday morning while the World Cup continued around them was quite unacceptable. Similarly, the difference in the All Blacks' performance between the second and third Tests against the British Lions in 1993 was attributable as much to willpower as it was to tactical superiority, as was the seven- day transformation in the Springboks in the series against England last summer.

Yet who will argue against the finely tempered strength of English steel? When Michael Lynagh unforgivably missed touch from a penalty kick five minutes from the end of last Sunday's stupendous match, England were given a glimpse of glory. That they were able to achieve it required discipline, composure and confidence to an extraordinary degree. It is typical of England's present mood that they see Lomu as a liability to the All Blacks, not as a threat to themselves.

Forty-eight hours after their defeat by the All Blacks, time enough for considered opinion, the majority of the Scottish team believe that England will not only beat New Zealand but that they will do so comfortably. The reasons given for this unlikely show of support for the Sassenachs were the All Blacks' defensive frailty, their lack of options at the line-out - surely not helped by the omission of Jamie Joseph in favour of Mike Brewer - and their inability to hold the concerted driving of the Scottish forwards which, though tightly controlled and well-organised, lacks the brute strength of England's crushing maul.

The Scottish plan had been to engage the All Blacks at close quarters and to kick deep. On no account were they to encourage the opposition with wayward high kicks from which the All Blacks could launch their blistering counter- attacks. Unfortunately, the Scots had neither the control nor the patience to adhere to their plan and began feeding the All Blacks tasty morsels. England will not fall into the same trap. They know the dangers lurking in the deep. The full-back Glen Osborne, although no side has succeeded in testing his defence, has nothing more to prove as a force in attack, and should Rob Andrew stray as far off line with his tactical kicks as Eric Elwood, then England can expect the same treatment Ireland received in the second half of their match.

Having a player like Osborne does tend to concentrate the mind on precise placement of the ball, thus putting an intolerable strain on a kicker's technique. It was the element missing from the All Blacks' game in their defeat at Twickenham two years ago when Andrew's deep kicks, instead of being used as priceless pieces of loose possession, were returned tamely to sender. The England forwards did the rest.

In addition, the All Blacks have Andrew Mehrtens. There is about his play an inspired audacity, stemming from the brashness of youth and a confidence not yet inhibited by failure. He has safe hands, broad vision, electrifying speed and, most remarkably of all for one of such subtle refinement, a mule-like kick. Today, Mehrtens will understand the true meaning of pressure. Whatever his instructions are, we can safely assume that the All Blacks will be more creatively restrained than they have been in their four games so far and more defensively aware than they were in the game against Scotland.

England, unless deflected by some unimaginable aberration, will continue to be England. And why not? In the past two and a half years, they have played and beaten New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, purportedly the top three sides in the world. The team that Jack Rowell has built is of almost identical design to the one constructed by Geoff Cooke, and they do aspire to playing a more flamboyant game, as they did earlier in the season against Romania and Canada and as they displayed briefly against Ireland and France in the Five Nations' Championship. But today England have no intention of altering course, the final confirmation of that being the preference of Dewi Morris over Kyran Bracken at scrum-half. A man prepared to sacrifice his job and his future to represent his country is a man who will not spare himself and it was into this continuous supply of raw energy and will power that England plugged so successfully last week.

England's task this time is harder. The All Blacks, having struck the right balance between fresh-faced youth and hard-core experience, are in much the same position as the Australians were four years ago. They are the side in form and, unlike the Australians in this tournament, more flexible in their approach. They are perhaps the fittest side in the competition, and their forwards, though lacking England's height and bulk, are muscularly abrasive.

Not only have they stumbled upon a top-class full-back and fly-half, but they have in Josh Kronfeld an oustanding open-side flanker whose speed and work rate England will be pushed to match. If he does not always impose himself on the opposition midfield, that is unlikely to be a problem in this match. If, for no other reason than their unrivalled ability to adapt to developing situations and fast-changing circumstances, the All Blacks should reach the final.

England v New Zealand

at Newlands, Cape Town

M Catt Bath 15 G Osborne North Harbour

T Underwood Leicester 14 J Wilson Otago

W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 F Bunce North Harbour

J Guscott Bath 12 W Little North Harbour

R Underwood Leicester 11 J Lomu Counties

R Andrew Wasps 10 A Mehrtens Canterbury

D Morris Orrell 9 G Bachop Canterbury

J Leonard Harlequins 1 C Dowd Auckland

B Moore Harlequins 2 S Fitzpatrick Auckland, capt

V Ubogu Bath 3 O Brown Auckland

M Johnson Leicester 4 I Jones North Harbour

M Bayfield Northampton 5 R Brooke Auckland

T Rodber Northampton 6 M Brewer Canterbury

D Richards Leicester 8 Z Brooke Auckland

B Clarke Bath 7 J Kronfeld Otago

Referee: S Hilditch (Ireland). Kick-off: 2.0 (ITV)