Rugby Union: All Blacks confront easier task: Northern lights dim

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The Independent Online
A PLEASANT thought for the All Blacks: after having to penetrate the very core of their inner belief to beat the Midlands and South-West, things might just get easier when they complete the divisional set against the North of England at Anfield today.

This is not to disparage the North, who produce plenty of good rugby players - only to find many of them heading for the city lights. Take Rob Andrew and Will Carling: both were in the North team who beat the Wallabies in 1988; five years on, both cock-sparrows were in the London team trounced by the Blacks.

The contrast between the high-profile types who turned out against New Zealand in the first three tour matches and the more motley crew who represent the North could scarcely be greater. Kevin Simms, last capped in 1988, may be one of only four England internationals in the side but he plays down in the Third Division. There are five players from the Second and even one from the Fourth.

This would be all right if the whole were greater than the sum of the parts, but the evidence from last year's North- South Africa game was that the sense of identity which the North had far more than any other division can no longer carry them through. In fact, Rory Underwood is the only current international in the side and, however suspect the Black midweekers may be, that lack of quality is bound to count.

However well David Scully may have been playing, the North could have done with Dewi Morris's combativeness round the forward fringes, since the injured England scrum-half's point of strength is precisely where the Midlands and South-West took on and matched New Zealand. And where London did not.

'The main point about playing New Zealand is the need to be realistic and take the right options,' Mike Slemen, the North coach, said. 'There are times when you simply have to kick the ball. London were guilty of trying to run poor- quality ball and against these lads that's something you cannot do.

'Which is not to say we have to kick everything, but pragmatism is the quality we must show, together with a solid defence. Even the All Blacks don't look so comfortable when the ball is put behind them and they have to go back and defend.'

The trick is not simply to do that but to turn it to sufficient scoring advantage, and neither the Midlands nor the South- West did so. As Slemen was on the wing when the North beat New Zealand in 1979 and when England did in 1983, this is something he knows from first-hand experience.

A crowd of 25,000 is anticipated at Anfield, and although there will therefore be empty spaces in a stadium used to holding up to 45,000, that is still an impressive measure of the All Blacks' pulling-power - not least compared with the 14,000 who turned up at Elland Road to see the Springboks a year ago.

As no rugby union ground could have coped with the demand, this time the North turned first to Old Trafford and, when that became unavailable, to Liverpool FC. But then this game is more than something special; according to the North committee man, Malcolm Phillips, an England centre of the rather distant past, it is 'the biggest rugby union game in the North this century'.

NORTH: I Hunter (Northampton); J Mallinder (Sale), K Simms (Liverpool St Helens, capt), M Fielden (Northampton), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson (Northampton), D Scully (Wakefield); M Hynes, G French (Orrell), S McMain (Sheffield), J Dixon (West Hartlepool), D Baldwin (Sale), T Rodber (Northampton), A MacFarlane (Sale), N Ashurst (Orrell).

NEW ZEALAND: S Howarth (Auckland); J Wilson (Otago), E Clarke (Auckland), M Berry (Wellington), E Rush (North Harbour); M Ellis, S Forster (Otago); M Allen (Taranaki), N Hewitt (Hawke's Bay), G Purvis (Waikato), B Larsen (North Harbour), R Fromont, Z Brooke (Auckland, capt), J Mitchell (Waikato), L Barry (North Harbour).

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).

All 19,100 tickets for England A's match against the All Blacks on Saturday have been sold, setting a new attendance record for Gateshead Stadium.