It takes an unusually bold variety of Englishman to stroll into All Black country, where the red rose army have achieved the grand total of two Test victories in the 45 years since they first paid a visit, and tell his hosts where they are going wrong on the World Cup front. Rob Andrew does bold rather well. Yesterday, the temporary manager-cum-coach informed his hosts that their infatuation with reclaiming the Webb Ellis Trophy they surrendered as long ago as 1991 was proving destructive.
Asked whether the whole World Cup fandango was having a negative effect on most other international activity by bestowing second-class status on tour matches of the kind scheduled here over the next 11 days, Twickenham's director of elite rugby declined to beat about the bush. "There is an obsession with the World Cup and we are now in the country that has the biggest obsession of all," he said. "Why haven't they won the title since 1987? Because they're too obsessed.
"It's important for players to value these matches for what they are. I never played a Test match in New Zealand, and as England are not due to tour here again for at least six years, there are people in this current squad who may never get another chance. We shouldn't lose our focus on each Test as it comes along, because these things are special. But the moment you try not to be obsessed by the World Cup, it gets thrown back at you via the international rankings, which dictate the seedings for the next tournament. The seedings for the 2011 competition will be decided in December of this year, so these Test matches and those that follow in the autumn will be absolutely critical in establishing where we'll be positioned in the pool phase."
Andrew spent last night finalising his side for the opening match in the two-Test rubber, at Eden Park on Saturday. With the single exception of Nick Easter, the Harlequins No 8 who is flying home for treatment on his fractured right hand, he expected to have a full squad from which to choose.
"How competitive will we be? It's difficult to say," he admitted. "We believe we have a good squad of players here, the spirit is strong and we have a clear idea of what we want to do. Assuming we don't get the terrible weather here that we saw in Wellington for the New Zealand-Ireland game at the weekend, the tempo will be the challenge for us – that and the intensity the All Blacks always bring to the contest. It's a simple, straightforward equation. If you match them in tempo and intensity, you give yourselves a chance. If you don't, forget it."
A few minutes before Andrew sat down to chew the fat, the All Black captain, Richie McCaw, announced that he had extended his New Zealand Rugby Football Union contract until 2011. However, it quickly became apparent that, like his Canterbury colleague Daniel Carter, he had negotiated the option for a sabbatical, during which he could, should he so choose, jet off to Europe for six months of club rugby that might net him three times as much as he might earn in a year at home.
"This is another shift in professional rugby, another example of it evolving," Andrew said, shrugging off suggestions that the establishment of the sabbatical principle might see a fresh injection of big-name All Blacks into the English domestic game at the expense of home-grown talent. "As long as we maintain the current balance of 65 per cent England-qualified players against 35 per cent foreign players, we can operate. The issue is more challenging for New Zealand than it is for us. I'll be interested to see how they manage things, because it's fraught with difficulty. They might see this as a short-term solution in terms of keeping their people under contract, but I don't see it as a long-term solution."