Rugby Union: Barnes backs reversal of backlash trend

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THE unforgiving logic of touring New Zealand is that the first chance is the best chance, but Stuart Barnes is having none of it. With a certitude that is either daring or foolhardy, he anticipates the second-Test backlash coming not from the shadow Blacks but from his England B team.

Rugby history, bunk or otherwise, does not endorse the captain's thesis that England will make a decisive improvement when they go in against the NZ 'C' XV at Pukekohe tomorrow. The full England side's experience in the 1985 Tests here, narrow defeat followed by a thrashing, is typical and only last month the Irish underwent a similar crushing experience.

However, Barnes appreciates that, instead of losing 24-18 in Hamilton last Sunday, England could well have won by a distance - and would have done so if his place-kicking had been marginally more accurate. He therefore insists that second time round England are capable of succeeding where ultimately they failed at first.

'They are not an awesome, unbeatable team and it wasn't a superhuman effort to get within six points - which is very different from how most teams fare against New Zealand opposition,' he said after yesterday's final training session at Papakura, just south of Auckland.

The Irish felt similarly after running the All Blacks to 24-21 five weeks ago, but, even so, their coach, Ciaran Fitzgerald, realised immediately that there would be a reckoning and, sure enough, the second-Test score was 59-6 (to New Zealand). The confident Barnes rejects any comparison, without any hint of the ritual optimism that can afflict the public utterances of touring captains.

But then, as he rates England B at least 20 points better than Ireland A, he has a decent case to argue. 'Without being unkind to the Irish team, our play is based on a lot more than raw commitment,' he said. 'We have a number of high-class, positive, creative players. If anything, I'd like to think the backlash could come from us.'

Indeed, it has not been a great week for the New Zealand XV. Relieved to have won in Hamilton, they did little of note against below-strength North Harbour on Wednesday and cannot finalise their line-up until a series of pre-match fitness tests tomorrow. England's only worry yesterday concerned the bench: Matthew Greenwood has replaced Justyn Cassell, who has a back injury.

'We respect the fact that the New Zealand team will improve but they do seem to have a few problems and our preparation has been a lot better than it was last week,' Barnes said. 'Everyone has a very clear idea of the principles of how we're going to play. Last week maybe we took it too much for granted.'

The three changes - introducing Hynes, Haag and Ojomoh to the pack - are designed to stiffen close-quarters resistance in defence and enhance the dynamism of England's driving forward play: an area in which the comparison with New Zealand sides has been consistently unfavourable on tour. By succeeding in both of these, England would probably win the match.

They have a superbly incisive back division, combining power with so much pace that only a flanker of the speed and wit of Neil Back could keep up with them. Given enough of the ball, the retribution for the frightful injury inflicted on Victor Ubogu's left ear in the first Test will be the sweetest possible: victory to tie the series.

This presupposes that the England pack avoid the temptation to seek out the injury's perpetrator, Chris Tregaskis. The tourists are caught between their distaste for the excesses of New Zealand 'rucking' and an understandable desire to get away with exactly the same as the locals, but it would be utter folly to be snared into putting a foot wrong.

You can hardly complain about New Zealand methods if you then go and adopt them, as happened once or twice against North Auckland on Wednesday. 'Discipline is a theme that has run through the whole trip,' the manager, Graham Smith, said. 'I know what is acceptable and I keep telling the players that there is a clear difference between genuine rucking when you are going for the ball and treading on people when there's no need.' So, Martin Hynes, you have been warned.

NEW ZEALAND XV (probable): M Berry (Wairarapa Bush); A McCormick (Canterbury), S Pierce (North Harbour), L Stensness (Manawatu), T Tagaloa (North Harbour); S Mannix (Wellington), S Crabb (Waikato); M Allen (Taranaki), W Gatland (Waikato, capt), G Walsh (North Harbour), S Gordon (Waikato), C Tregaskis (Wellington), G Taylor (North Auckland), R Turner (North Harbour), D Seymour (Canterbury).

ENGLAND B: I Hunter (Northampton); S Hackney (Leicester), P de Glanville (Bath), D Hopley (Wasps), T Underwood (Leicester); S Barnes (Bath, capt), A Kardooni (Leicester); M Hynes (Orrell), G Dawe (Bath), A Mullins (Harlequins), M Haag (Bath), M Bayfield (Northampton), S Ojomoh, B Clarke (Bath), N Back (Leicester).

Referee: C Hawke (Timaru).

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