Rugby Union: All Blacks have the style of winners: Chris Rea explains why the accident-prone New Zealand tourists should still sweep all before them on their British tour

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The Independent Online
IF Sean Fitzpatrick's All Blacks arrive in London tomorrow for their 13-match tour of England and Scotland without any further misfortunes befalling their players, they will breathe a sizeable sigh of relief. The loss of Walter Little, one of their playmakers in midfield, a few days before departure was only the latest blow in a catalogue of mishaps. For one reason or another, three of the All Blacks' most important players of recent times are absent from the squad - a fact which has generated as much bleak pessimism in New Zealand as it has optimism in Britain.

But has Fitzpatrick's side been sufficiently weakened to justify hopes that it will fall prey to avenging forces north and south of the border? Of the three missing 'greats' - John Kirwan, Michael Jones and Grant Fox - it is Fox who will be most seriously missed. As an accumulator of points, he has no peer in the modern game, and whoever is entrusted with the goal-kicking duties in his place seems doomed to suffer by comparison. The tourists cannot expect the bountiful supply of points on this tour that they have grown used to getting, match after match, from Fox. Furthermore, Fox has a precise understanding of the All Blacks' game and habitually plays to the team's strengths in a way which Steve Bachop, his likely replacement, may not. Bachop is primarily a runner, and, as was proved with those free spirits Steve Pokere and Frano Botica, New Zealand rugby has a deep suspicion of fly-halves who kick only when they cannot run. Not the least of Fox's qualities is the soothing effect he has on those around him. There have been times when he has carried his responsibilities as leader of the backs too far, and has wanted to organise the forwards as well, but his calm authority has helped many a novice through the maelstrom of a first international.

Without him, players like Jon Preston and Lee Stensness, barely out of the international cradle themselves, will be dispensing advice and encouragement to even rawer recruits.

John Kirwan will be missed more for the stability he would have brought to this uneasy-looking blend of the old and the new than for the quality of his play, which the selectors clearly felt was no longer up to standard. The absence through injury of Michael Jones, however, is infinitely more serious. In his prime Jones was close to being the perfect rugby machine, and, as he showed in the deciding Test against the Lions, his play can transcend the passage of time and the physical toll taken by serious injury. Capable of playing in all three back-row positions and a receptive target for his throwers at the tail of the line-out, Jones is in the indispensable class as a tourist.

As uncharacteristically uncertain of their tactics as they are (more understandably at this stage) of their likely Test line-up, the All Blacks have been given scant opportunity to experiment by the tour schedule. Some consider London, the Midlands and the South-West to be too easy a ride for the All Blacks in their first week, but it would be hard to come up with a more demanding start to any tour. (Not that defeat in one or more of the early games would necessarily offer much of a guide to the outcome of the international matches.) In common with their predecessors, Fitzpatrick's men will no doubt have the priceless ability to learn from their mistakes, to adapt to prevailing conditions, and particularly to effect change, as they did in the week between the second and third Tests against the Lions. In the line-out that change involved reverting to the blatantly brutal law of the jungle; in the loose it was a more subtle shift in the lines of running. Yet despite these adjustments, the rugby remained unmistakably New Zealand in style and content.

The New Zealand style is one which has evolved from the simple premiss that it is not what you do that counts so much as how well you do it. The style, like the All Blacks themselves, is surrounded by an aura of invincibility. Whether this is imaginary or real is not important. What matters is that it is lodged in the psyche of their rivals. It is still the biggest obstacle facing their British opponents.

It is one thing to match the All Blacks in attitude and selfless commitment - the Lions succeeded admirably on both counts at Athletic Park. It is something else to impose your stamp on them for long enough to beat them. This presupposes, of course, that you have a style to impose. If the 1993 Lions had an identifying trademark then it escaped most observers (although that may reflect on the selection of the Lions sides rather than their coaching). The Scots have faithfully followed the road laid down by Jim Telfer and resurfaced by Ian McGeechan, adopting a distinctive style based on temperament and resources. But what is England's style?

England's manpower alone has generally been enough to put the frighteners on their opponents in Europe, yet they have been found wanting when it mattered most against New Zealand and Australia. The important question is therefore not whether Ubogu will replace Probyn, whether Andrew will supplant Barnes or who will succeed Winterbottom on the flank, but what are to be England's tactics? Will they be based on attack or defence - light horse or heavy artillery? In other words, by what style are we to identify them? Only then can the questions on personnel be answered. On this point, with the World Cup final as a stark reminder, there can be no half-measures, no compromise.

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