England must hit new peak to storm Carisbrook

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The All Blacks have changed their personnel - only one forward from the Probables' pack in the international trial 11 days ago, the lock forward Keith Robinson, survived the cut for the opening Test against England - and if the new captain, Tana Umaga, is to be believed, they have changed their philosophy too. But some things in rugby are close to eternal, and Carisbrook is among them. New Zealand have lost only three times in 96 years at the so-called House of Pain, and if Clive Woodward's world champions win here today, they will cement their place in sporting legend.

The All Blacks have changed their personnel - only one forward from the Probables' pack in the international trial 11 days ago, the lock forward Keith Robinson, survived the cut for the opening Test against England - and if the new captain, Tana Umaga, is to be believed, they have changed their philosophy too. But some things in rugby are close to eternal, and Carisbrook is among them. New Zealand have lost only three times in 96 years at the so-called House of Pain, and if Clive Woodward's world champions win here today, they will cement their place in sporting legend.

Only the Lions, twice, and Australia have successfully stormed this most forbidding of South Island citadels, where so many silver-ferned immortals - Kevin Skinner and Red Conway of ancient memory, Jeff Wilson and Josh Kronfeld of more recent vintage - cut their teeth, honed their skills and sharpened the blade of their ruthlessness. England may have won in New Zealand a year ago, but the game was played at a spanking new stadium in Wellington that might have been situated anywhere in the world. Carisbrook, as rickety as an arthritic old prop from the 1950s, stands proudly on foundations of pure tradition. The place is an inspiration.

England did not win the Webb Ellis Trophy in Australia last year by fretting over venues. In the last four years they have beaten Ireland in Dublin - no easy matter these days - South Africa in Bloemfontein, Argentina in Buenos Aires and the Wallabies in both Melbourne and Sydney. When Woodward and his coaching team describe Carisbrook as just another field, another rectangle of mud and whitewash, they mean it. The red rose army took ownership of their destiny many moons ago and see no reason to relinquish it because Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson are out of the loop and Jason Robinson is sunning himself on a beach somewhere.

Yet there are good reasons to fear for them today. Graham Henry is a sly fox of an All Blacks coach, and his forward selection, experimental as it is, looks to be bang on the money. In Jono Gibbes, the new cap from Waikato, and Xavier Rush, the compact No 8 from Auckland, he has players he believes capable of leading the team back to the future - old-fashioned grunt merchants in one sense, thoroughly modern, decision-making back-rowers in another. Throw in the likes of Kees Meeuws, Keven Mealamu, Chris Jack and the sensational Richie McCaw, perhaps the best player in any position anywhere in the world, and any thoughts of a comfortable ride for England disappear through the nearest pane of glass.

England expect to win - "We expect to win every game we play," Woodward said yesterday, with the assurance of a man whose achievements stack up against his ambitions - but to do so, a number of pressing issues will have to be addressed. Julian White, an iron scrummager on his day, will face a severe examination of temperament, having been inexplicably exposed by the powder-puff tight forwards of Samoa during the World Cup. Simon Shaw, in the form of his life for Wasps, must contribute at the line-out as he contributes everywhere else; Richard Hill, beyond criticism as the finest blindside flanker ever produced by England, must reclaim the yard of pace he lost after moving to the openside position at the start of the Six Nations' Championship.

Above all, the midfield defence as a whole will have to be stronger than its component parts, which include Charlie Hodgson and Mike Catt. Neither man relishes the heavy-duty stuff - Hodgson prefers artistry to barbarity, Catt has been hung out to dry too often in the past to rest on his laurels here. Last year in Wellington, an English defence buttressed by the incomparable tackling of Wilkinson held firm against the Howletts and Rokocokos. Today, the white line looks a whole lot less formidable.

"Of all the back divisions in the world, the All Blacks are the most exciting, the most dangerous," admitted Phil Larder, the tourists' specialist defence coach. "The most important thing is to play in the faces of our opponents, to slow their ball initially and then move up fast and get amongst them. We need to cut down their think-time, not sit back and wait for them to show off their silky skills."

As ever, this will be easier said then done. Larder has staged some spectacular defensive productions in recent years, but this one may have to be the most remarkable yet. England do not have Wilkinson to kick goals from all angles, so points may be hard to come by. If they win - and it is a big "if" - it will almost certainly be in a low-scoring contest.

Comments