England to face full power of All Blacks

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The Independent Online

The good news? Graham Henry, the head coach of the All Blacks and the man chosen to deliver New Zealand's first world title in 20 years, has yet to establish the precise nature of his optimum starting XV. The bad news? He intends to connect the last few dots from a position of overwhelming strength during the forthcoming four-Test trip to Britain and France, which begins with a match at Twickenham against an England side about to be selected from a position of weakness. One way or another, the red-rose prospects are far from good.

Frighteningly, Henry is of the opinion that his Tri-Nations champions have spent the last year functioning at 75 per cent of their potential. Asked yesterday if there a was chance of the New Zealanders tapping into the missing 25 per cent any time soon - that is to say, over the next five weeks or so - he replied: "It's what we're aiming to do. This is a very important trip for us, a road test for the World Cup in France next year. It's our last opportunity to play in Europe before the tournament, so we're keen to get things right."

New Zealand have been operating a player-rotation policy for more than a year now, but Henry is about to draw a line in this regard. "It's time to get our combinations going," he said, indicating that the stone-cold certainties in the starting line-up - the outside-half Daniel Carter, the props Tony Woodcock and Carl Hayman, the flankers Jerry Collins and Richie McCaw - will see more action on this trip than on the successful Grand Slam tour here 12 months ago.

These players might easily have been rested after a hard run of National Provincial Championship, Super 14 and Test rugby. The fact they are travelling underlines the seriousness with which the All Black hierarchy are treating this latest venture overseas.

Henry conceded two points during yesterday's discussion. He acknowledged that Tana Umaga, the dreadlocked centre who walked away from international rugby last winter after leading the side to a first clean sweep of these islands since Graham Mourie's vintage performed the feat in 1978, had left a hole the size of his native Wellington in the fabric of the New Zealand side. "Tana ranks alongside the great All Black captains of the last 100 years," Henry said. "You don't replace a special person like him too easily." He also confessed to a degree of incredulity at England's decline in the years since they won the World Cup in 2003 - in particular, the horrible run of five defeats set in motion by the shambolic Calcutta Cup performance in Edinburgh during last season's Six Nations Championship. "I'm surprised, obviously," he said. "But there are more players in England than anywhere else, and they have the strength and drive to bounce back at any given moment."

These forthcoming matches - a two-Test series with the French and a one-off meeting with Wales follow the fixture at Twickenham - will be the last anyone sees of the majority of this silver-ferned squad for some months. More than 20 of Henry's most influential players will be withheld from the first half of the 2007 Super 14 tournament, much to the anger of the broadcasters and sponsors who underwrite the competition. The decision has kicked up all sorts of dirt down New Zealand way, but the coach was in no mood to give ground when pressed on the subject.

"I can't see the point in doing the same things we've been doing for the last 20 years in respect of preparing for a World Cup, because those things clearly don't work," he said. "This is about trying new strategies in an attempt to be successful, one of which involves certain players working on their conditioning rather than playing Super 14 rugby from the start. There is a huge amount of injury in professional rugby these days, so we're looking to manage the situation as best we can by keeping our guys fit, healthy and on the job."

One of England's few obvious first-choice players, the Sale wing Mark Cueto, is hoping to play for his club in their Heineken Cup match with Calvisano on Friday night. Cueto hurt his ankle during last week's defeat by the Ospreys, but a scan revealed minimal damage.