How far have England fallen in the space of 12 months? This far. Daniel Carter, pound-for-pound and position-for-position the best player in the game, will face the shop-soiled world champions at Twickenham this weekend only if the All Blacks' third-choice No 10, Nick Evans, fails to recover from the hamstring injury he suffered during training yesterday. Evans's chances are rated no higher than 50-50, so Carter will probably be the starting stand-off anyway, but even so...
Graham Henry, the New Zealand head coach, intends to play his first-choice combination in the second of two Tests against France in Paris on 18 November, and not before. Henry went to considerable lengths yesterday to stress that he expected a strong challenge from England, along the lines of the one they mounted last year - a fixture from which the tourists were relieved to emerge in one piece, he revealed. But the decision to relegate the senior No 8, Rodney So'oialo, to the bench and leave the ruthless Jerry Collins out of the equation altogether suggested the All Black hierarchy have prioritised the games against the Tricolores.
It may even be that Henry fears Wales, where he once earned a handsome living as the so-called "Great Redeemer", more than he fears England, which is something Andy Robinson and his charges would find very hard to take. Twelve months ago, when the All Blacks arrived in these islands with Grand Slam business on their agenda, they saw the red-rose army as the only serious threat to their ambitions and fielded the Full Monty as a consequence. Might the reverse be true this time? Henry had no intention of being drawn up that particular cul-de-sac, but the notion was there all the same.
Not that anyone should run away with the idea that this is a weak New Zealand side. The back three of Mils Muliaina, Rico Gear and Joe Rokocoko is special indeed - if, by some miracle, the England wing debutant Paul Sackey sees off Rokocoko, he will then find himself confronted by the equally electrifying Sitiveni Sivivatu - and there is much to be said for the tight-five unit, featuring as it does the renowned front row of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Carl Hayman. Oh yes, Richie McCaw is playing as well. As the flanker and captain habitually does the work of three men, the tourists will start the game with 18 on the field.
Yet the England strategists will have noted the lack of match-hardness in a revamped New Zealand back row. Reuben Thorne, who is enjoying something of a renaissance after leading his country to World Cup failure in 2003, has barely set foot on a pitch since August; Chris Masoe, who gave the Lions all the trouble they could handle while playing for Taranaki at the start of the 2005 tour, has been restricted to a couple of National Provincial Championship gallops off the bench.
"How would I describe their preparation? I'd describe it as poor," conceded Henry. "Along with the rest of the squad, they had a bit of a run-out against an amateur team drawn from the rural unions back home, but that's about it. We're thinking very hard about player welfare, about giving people sufficient rest, but that brings its own problems because we now know that managing an individual's reintroduction to competitive rugby is a very complex and extremely important issue. I don't think throwing people straight back in after 10 or 12 weeks off is recommended, so this has to be carefully controlled. We certainly aren't waving a magic wand in this area. We're picking up an injury a day in training."
Henry is working on the assumption that England will play some rugby on Sunday, rather than spend the entire 80 minutes wrestling away like 15 Greco-Roman exponents. "In Australia during the summer they tried to use the ball, sometimes from their own 22, which was something we hadn't seen for a number of years," he commented. "I thought they were very positive."
That being said, the overwhelming positive from Henry's perspective is the return to All Black colours of Keith Robinson, the rough-and-tumble lock from Waikato. Robinson spent two years out of top-flight rugby following his country's 2004 match with the Pacific Islands - "His back went, and it was the only one he had," the coach said, quirkily - before materialising out of the woodwork during the recent NPC series. "It's quite a story," the coach continued. "He's only seven first-class games into his comeback, yet we consider him good enough to play in this Test. There is a remarkable tenacity about Keith. He was never one for taking a backward step in the old days. I'm sure he's the same now."
One of the men scheduled to meet up with Robinson in the dark depths of the forward contest, the Leicester lock Ben Kay, will train today in an effort to persuade the England coaches of his match-fitness. The Lions lock picked up a "dead" leg during his club's Heineken Cup win against Cardiff Blues in the Welsh capital four days ago, but the management are confident he will be right in time for kick-off. Chris Jones of Sale stands by, just in case.
New Zealand (to play England at Twickenham on Sunday 5 Nov): M Muliaina (Waikato), R Gear (Tasman), M Nonu (Wellington), A Mauger (Canterbury), J Rokocoko (Auckland), N Evans (Otago), B Kelleher (Waikato), T Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), C Hayman (Otago), C Jack (Tasman), K Robinson (Waikato), R Thorne (Canterbury), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), C Masoe (Wellington). Substitutes: A Hore (Taranaki), J Afoa (Auckland), C Dermody (Southland), R So'oialo (Wellington), A Ellis (Canterbury), D Carter (Canterbury, S Sivivatu (Waikato).Reuse content