The England players have spent the last few weeks avoiding the subject of next year’s home World Cup, but an imminent meeting with the All Blacks tends to concentrate minds.
“The matches we’re about to play are probably more important than usual because 2015 is closing in,” acknowledged Chris Robshaw, the red-rose captain, during preparations for this weekend’s autumn opener. “New Zealand are the benchmark and there’s no hiding place for us. We’re not going into this game to be second best.”
Robshaw and company are getting to know the reigning world champions rather well, having played a three-Test series in the Land of the Long White Cloud as recently as five months ago. They lost on each occasion and, although they put up a decent fight in the first two of those games, another failure against Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and the rest of the silver-ferned maestros will leave England struggling with an inferiority complex the size of Twickenham.
Saturday’s game on the old cabbage patch in south-west London will, according to the captain, be a serious examination of the national team’s ability to deal with the kind of pressure they will face in 10 months’ time, when the Webb Ellis Trophy goes up for grabs. “It’s always special when the All Blacks come to town,” he said. “They’re the current champions, they’re ranked No 1, they’ve won a huge number of matches and they’re capable of running – and winning – from anywhere.
“It’s an important moment for us. The big southern hemisphere teams want to come to Twickenham and perform well, while we want to make it a fortress. How do we beat the All Blacks? There’s no magic formula. We’ll have to defend well and take our chances. Andy Farrell [the England assistant coach] is very good on this. He says that while they are the best attacking side, they give you opportunities with how they defend. We’ll have to be clinical if we’re to take advantage.
“Beating the big sides is about composure. In the heat of the moment, when everything is flying... that’s when it’s a case of ‘are you good enough?’ We’ve come a long way since we last beat the All Blacks in 2012. We were very defence-orientated then: we prided ourselves on that aspect and we won matches on the back of it. Now, our attacking game has caught up. And we’re more composed because we have more experience, having been around the world and played in the big arenas.”
One of the many well-travelled players missing from England’s line-up on Saturday – the Lions tight-head prop Dan Cole – is about to resume business in Leicester’s scrum after a long struggle with neck problems. If he comes through his club’s Anglo-Welsh Cup game with Sale this weekend, England’s head coach, Stuart Lancaster, will see it as a significant upturn in fortune.
Cole suffered a sudden and dramatic loss of strength during a gym session last February. Scans revealed two issues – a bulging disc and a trapped nerve – and it was initially thought that a lengthy period of rest would lead to a full recovery. The reality was somewhat different: the 27-year-old forward learnt in May that he would require surgery.
Happily, the operation was successful. Cole will be carefully reintroduced to top-level rugby over the next few weeks and should be available for Six Nations duty after Christmas.Reuse content