Forward ferocity at heart of Red Rose plans to counter All Black supremacy

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The Independent Online

The anthems will be first up, followed by the inevitable haka - quite possibly the new "Kapa o Pango" version that concludes with the All Blacks running their fingers across their throats like 15 villains in a spaghetti western. Then, by way of a response, the Twickenham crowd will be treated to a boisterous rendition of "Land of Hope and Glory". If this latest addition is a clever ruse to delay the kick-off, England might do better to opt for some endless Handel oratorio instead. The game would then not start until tomorrow, by which time the New Zealanders will be safely out of the way in Edinburgh.

For all the extraneous matter surrounding this afternoon's meeting between the world champions and the world's best team - and God knows, there is plenty of it, what with allegations of spying and dark mutterings about dodgy silver-ferned tactics in just about every phase of the game - the reality boils down to the following. Are England good enough to make their tackles and protect their own ball?

If they are, we may just have a contest on our hands. Martin Corry's forwards should win their fair share of possession, for they have a Centurion Tank of a scrum and a Rolls-Royce of a line-out. The All Blacks are fair to middling in both departments, but their most potent strengths lie elsewhere - most notably in the dynamism and sophistication of their support and continuity work, their pace with ball in hand and their implacable hostility in the tackle area. They reign supreme in the art of the turnover, so England's priority must be to hang on to their belongings whatever the cost.

There was significant news in this regard yesterday when Richie McCaw, far and away the finest open-side flanker in international rugby, withdrew from the All Blacks' starting line-up because he was still suffering the effects of the bang on the head he received while skinning the Irish bare at Lansdowne Road. His replacement, the 26-year-old newcomer Chris Masoe, is no slouch; indeed, he played quite brilliantly for Taranaki against the Lions in New Plymouth last June and performed even more impressively in his Test debut against Wales in Cardiff a fortnight ago. All the same, McCaw is not a man to miss a match without anyone noticing.

"It's a big disappointment for them," Andy Robinson, the England coach, said. "There again, I've never seen a poor New Zealand open-side, so as far as Masoe is concerned he'll be treated as another very good flanker in an All Black shirt. Whenever we come up against New Zealand, it is a matter of playing error-free rugby and converting pressure into points. If we're going to make mistakes, we'll have to make them in their half. If we make them in our own, they'll score 40."

McCaw, who has a history of head injuries, ruled himself out of the game - by some distance the most challenging fixture of his country's Grand Slam tour of the British Isles. "He understands his own body and he feels he's slightly off his best," Graham Henry, the New Zealand coach, explained. "He wants to err on the side of caution, and I feel this is a very mature decision. He has put the team first. He knows there is no point playing if he's not 100 per cent fit."

England's problem is that the other 24-carat sensationals in the All Black mix, most notably Doug Howlett and Daniel Carter, are at the peak of fitness. Both have had their rests from Test activity recently, Howlett because he fell off his own high standards, Carter because he fell over and broke his leg. Henry was always likely to rehabilitate them sooner rather than later, however, and their performances on this tour have been jaw-dropping. If the red-rose army give them the run of the house, they will make one hell of a mess.

Chances of an upset - for that is what it will be if England win, despite their home advantage - depend on Andrew Sheridan and his fellow tight forwards making a mess of the All Black pack. There were signs last week that the visitors' line-out is not everything it should be, and while Chris Jack's return should improve matters, Steve Borthwick's expertise in this discipline will expose any little flaws and fragilities. Sheridan's scrummaging will also be a central component of the English strategy, although Carl Hayman, the most accomplished tight-head specialist in the southern hemisphere, is a different kettle of fish to the horizontal Wallabies who surrendered to the out-sized Sale prop last time out.

Given the fact that New Zealand have the speed and skill to crack England's defensive code, the smart money must be on a victory for the tourists by something in the region of a dozen points. Not even Carter can play without the ball, though. The Springboks, who have beaten the All Blacks twice since the latter last performed here, are adept at summoning the ferocity required to prevail against these most gifted of opponents. England must whip up something similar today. There is no other way.


Today's Twickenham teams


15 J Lewsey (Wasps)

14 M Cueto (Sale)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 M Tindall (Gloucester)

11 B Cohen (Northampton)

10 C Hodgson (Sale)

9 M Dawson (Wasps)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 S Thompson (Northampton)

3 P Vickery (Gloucester)

4 S Borthwick (Bath)

5 D Grewcock (Bath)

6 P Sanderson (Worcester)

7 L Moody (Leicester)

8 M Corry (Leicester, capt)

REPLACEMENTS: L Mears, M Stevens (both Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), C Jones (Sale), H Ellis (Leicester), O Barkley (Bath), M van Gisbergen (Wasps)

New Zealand

15 M Muliaina (Auckland)

14 D Howlett (Auckland)

13 T Umaga (Wellington, capt)

12 A Mauger (Canterbury)

11 S Sivivatu (Waikato)

10 D Carter (Canterbury)

9 B Kelleher (Waikato)

1 A Woodcock (North Harbour)

2 K Mealamu (Auckland)

3 C Hayman (Otago)

4 C Jack (Canterbury)

5 A Williams (Auckland)

6 J Collins (Wellington)

7 C Masoe (Taranaki)

8 R So'oialo (Wellington)

REPLACEMENTS: A Hore (Taranaki), N Tialata (Wellington), J Eaton (Taranaki), M Tuiali'i (Canterbury), P Weepu (Wellington), J Rokocoko (Auckland), L MacDonald (Canterbury)