Hansen’s warning to All Blacks of little comfort to distracted England
Friday 20 June 2008
This is one hell of a mess, to put it mildly. It is quite enough for a tired touring team to have the All Blacks on their backs in the wintry south island of New Zealand, where rugby folk show mercy in the way a miser shows the inside of his wallet. Now that the Auckland police are on their backs as well, England find themselves labouring under the dead weight of unrealistic expectation. They say they want to win this second and final Test, the last match of the unprecedentedly combustible season, but they cannot believe for a second that such a result is possible.
England have won in New Zealand only twice in their history. On neither occasion were they being pursued by detectives. It is tempting to suggest that this campaign, in which an unlikely march to a second successive World Cup final was soured by bitterness and backstabbing, and in which the head coach was reappointed after a two-month review before being sacked without reason a few weeks later, is getting the send-off it deserves - that if the red rose army ship another 30 points here, it will not seem entirely inappropriate.
While the tourists enjoyed some time off yesterday - if, indeed, enjoyment was an option as vague allegations of sexual misconduct flew around the camp while the police steadfastly refused to shed any light on the status of the inquiry they themselves publicly trumpeted three days ago - the New Zealanders were trying to figure out what they might anticipate from proceedings at Lancaster Park, which will itself have a peculiar feel to it because of large-scale development work on part of the stadium.
Having won so comfortably in Auckland, they might be forgiven for assuming that England will be in no shape to raise anything more threatening than a white flag. But when All Black minds drift back to the World Cup quarter-final defeat by France last October, a less positive feeling courses through their veins. This feeling was articulated by Steve Hansen, the New Zealand forwards coach.
“I think the issues around the England camp will bring them closer together, will unite them,” he said yesterday. “When you see teams, or families, under pressure, they unite. England will batten down the hatches and look after each other. I'm sure they'll be working hard on their focus, because they'll want to leave for home with a performance of which they can be proud. They've been beaten, and now they have this thing that's uniting them. That makes them very dangerous. We know this will be a contest.”
All Black coaches have been known to pull their share of fast ones down the years: in bygone days, they would wax lyrical about the blinding talent of any profoundly useless opponent they fancied seeing in a touring team's starting line-up. But Hansen's words here had a ring of truth about them. The New Zealanders know they could have scored 50 points at Eden Park last weekend, and that they were unusually generous in restricting themselves to 37, all but three of which were scored in a 23-minute spell either side of half-time. Yet they are also aware that England are in such a strange place as a result of the unprecedented events of the last 72 hours, there is no knowing for sure how they might react over the next 24.
In attempting to construct a case, however flimsy, for a first English Test victory in this city, it is impossible not to start with the absence of Conrad Smith from the All Blacks' midfield. Smith may well be the most intelligent outside centre to play international rugby in a decade - how wonderful it would be to see him operating alongside the French maestro Yannick Jauzion - and it is not over-egging the pudding to suggest that the tourists' one moment of happiness this week resulted from their rivals' midfield selection. Richard Kahui, a 23-year-old debutant, may be brilliant for all England know, but he surely cannot be as brilliant as Smith.
There again, the visitors' own midfield selection beggars belief. By pairing Jamie Noon and Mike Tindall at centre at the expense of the infinitely more creative Olly Barkley, they are effectively saying to the New Zealanders: “We'll concentrate on stopping you scoring, and let the rest take care of itself.” England have considerable pace in the wide positions, with Mathew Tait at full-back alongside Topsy Ojo and Tom Varndell on the wings. But attacking runners also require the ball, preferably in a little space. Noon and Tindall will tackle their hearts out, but unless they find ways of opening up the New Zealanders as well as closing them down, Tait and company could be in for a long 80 minutes.
At least the tourists can build on their forward performance in Auckland. Assuming the 20-stone New Zealand loose-head prop Neemia Tialata does not make Matt Stevens' life a thorough misery at the set-pieces - Tialata was not overly impressed by his opponent's suggestion that the All Blacks deliberately collapsed scrums in the second half of last weekend's contest and has hinted darkly at revenge - the scrap for the loose ball should be something to behold. James Haskell, Tom Rees and Luke Narraway did England proud at Eden Park. Who knows? A repeat performance could see Richie McCaw forced onto the back foot, for once in his life.
All things considered, however, England are depending on too many “ifs”. It has been a wretched week of sullen silences from the management, broken by the occasional upbeat rallying cry from the likes of Haskell and Rees, whose natural enthusiasm knows no bounds. Hansen asserted that “one of the things we New Zealanders learned from the World Cup was that teams are most vulnerable when they're winning all the time”, but against opponents as depressed and distracted as these, vulnerability is not obviously a problem. Whatever happens, the tourists will be glad to make it through passport control.
New Zealand: L MacDonald (Canterbury); S Sivivatu (Waikato), R Kahui (Waikato), M Nonu (Wellington), R Wulf (North Harbour); D Carter (Canterbury), A Ellis (Canterbury); N Tialata (Wellington), A Hore (Taranaki), G Somerville (Canterbury), B Thorn (Tasman), A Williams (Tasman), A Thomson (Otago), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: K Mealamu (Auckland), A Woodcock (North Harbour), A Boric (North Harbour), S Lauaki (Waikato), J Cowan (Southland), S Donald (Waikato), M Muliaina (Waikato).
England: M Tait (Newcastle); T Ojo (London Irish), M Tindall (Gloucester), J Noon (Newcastle), T Varndell (Leicester); T Flood (Newcastle), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), T Palmer (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath, capt), J Haskell (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), L Narraway (Gloucester). Replacements: D Paice (London Irish), J Hobson (Bristol), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), P Richards (London Irish), O Barkley (Bath), D Strettle (Harlequins).
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
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