Great civilisations rise and fall in the time it takes England to win a Test match in All Black country: after John Pullin's amateur no-hopers successfully flew in the face of rugby logic to prevail in 1973, there was a 30-year wait for Martin Johnson's ultra-professional world champions-elect to achieve something similar. Yet if the chances of a red rose triumph at Eden Park tomorrow morning are not, statistically speaking, particularly brilliant, there is a growing feeling here that New Zealanders will at least have to sweat blood for their victory.
Richard Loe, that formidable front-row ogre from the south island who caused more than his fair share of mayhem in the course of a 49-cap career, predicted yesterday that the hosts would win by a mere 14 points – a very far cry from the astronomical figures usually bandied about when the English come to town. The All Black nation is unsure of itself, and that uncertainty weighs heavily on the coach, Graham Henry, and the captain, Richie McCaw. Just for once, supremacy is the stuff of aspiration, not assumption.
The tourists must surely be aware of these insecurities, because they are reflected in the pages of every newspaper, on every radio talkback show, on every television sports channel. There is endless debate about the state of the sport in this most rugby-obsessed of communities – about the reappointment of Henry, about new contracts signed by McCaw and Daniel Carter with their controversial sabbatical clauses, about the challenges posed by the tiger economies in England and France. When Steve Tew, the chief executive of the New Zealand union, openly admits that the fight is on for the hearts and minds of the public, anything is possible.
And an English victory must be counted among those possibilities. Last week, when the All Blacks saw off Ireland's challenge in the rain and wind of Wellington, they dominated at both scrum and line-out. No one seriously expects them to exert similar pressure at the set-piece tomorrow – Andrew Sheridan and Matt Stevens are a slightly different proposition to Marcus Horan and John Hayes in the propping department – and with Steve Borthwick running an England line-out boasting a jumper as athletic as Tom Palmer, the New Zealanders cannot be confident of achieving anything better than parity there either. This alone means the visitors should stay in the game for far longer than most of their forerunners.
This is not a weak England side, by any stretch of the imagination. Six of the pack are undisputed first-choicers; Richard Wigglesworth is the incumbent scrum-half, although he will do well to hang on to his place when Harry Ellis of Leicester finally returns to international business after injury; Olly Barkley and Mike Tindall can legitimately consider themselves the senior centre pairing; David Strettle's status as a starting wing is as secure as it can be. And Charlie Hodgson's reappearance gives the tourists some footballing know-how in the pivot position.
Should England go down heavily here, it will be counted a back-room failure as well as an on-field one. A year ago, Brian Ashton travelled to South Africa for a two-Test series he needed like the proverbial hole in the head and, armed with only a third-string side full of old lags and Johnny-come-latelys, somehow inspired his team to a half-time lead in Pretoria against a side that would win the World Cup four months later.
John Wells, the forwards coach, was among those who made the trip to Springbok land, where he found himself preparing a journeyman pack for battle against the likes of John Smit, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger. This is another kettle of fish entirely. "I think it's fair to say that the skill element amongst those here is different," he admitted. "I hope the hard core of this England pack will be around over the next two or three years and take us towards the 2011 World Cup. We're getting the better players on the pitch for these matches, so we should be very competitive."
Assuming the tight forwards do their thing, the contest between the loose trios will be compelling. James Haskell and Tom Rees, the two Wasps flankers, are in the very best of form, and while it would be asking a bit much of them to put rivals as celebrated as McCaw and Rodney So'oialo to the sword, they should at least pierce their armour. As for the No 8 Luke Narraway, he is no less experienced than Jerome Kaino, the least familiar of the All Black back-rowers.
It is in the open areas of the field that the New Zealanders hold an obvious advantage, although the hamstring injury suffered by Mils Muliaina in training on Wednesday threatens to compromise it to a degree. (Paul Williams, the Otago full-back, has been called in as cover). England will bank on Tindall to neutralise Conrad Smith, perhaps the smartest outside centre in world rugby, but when it comes to stopping the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu, they can only look to the heavens and pray. Is Topsy Ojo, the freshly-minted wing from London Irish, up to it? Only time – 80 long minutes of it – will tell.
New Zealand will expect to win the try count. But if Barkley kicks his goals as Wilkinson did in Wellington five years ago, England may well find themselves in the game deep into the final quarter. And if that happens, who knows where the All Blacks' apprehensions and anxieties will take them?
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Waikato); A Tuitavake (North Harbour), C Smith (Wellington), M Nonu (Wellington), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), A Ellis (Canterbury); N Tialata (Wellington), A Hore (Taranaki), G Somerville (Canterbury), B Thorn (Tasman), A Williams (Tasman), R So'oialo (Wellington), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), J Kaino (Auckland). Replacements: K Mealamu (Auckland), J Schwalger (Wellington), A Boric (North Harbour), S Lauaki (Waikato), J Cowan (Southland), S Donald (Waikato), L MacDonald (Canterbury).
England: M Brown (Harlequins), T Ojo (London Irish), M Tindall (Gloucester), O Barkley (Bath), D Strettle (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), R Wigglesworth (Sale); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), T Palmer (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath, capt), J Haskell (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), L Narraway (Gloucester). Replacements: D Paice (London Irish), T Payne (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), J Noon (Newcastle), M Tait (Newcastle).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content