Hodgson: 'To be the best, you have to play against the best'

Charlie Hodgson has painful memories of the All Blacks, but the England full-back is relishing chance to put the record straight. He talks to Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

Most sportsmen agree on the importance of starting well. If it falls on Charlie Hodgson to open proceedings at Twickenham tomorrow, the sight of 15 big men in black jerseys should be a painful reminder to the England fly-half of how vital those opening moments can be.

Seventeen months ago, while making only his fifth start wearing the red rose, Hodgson kicked off the first of two Test matches Down Under against the All Blacks. The ball sailed straight into the arms of Joe Rokocoko, who promptly embarked on a storming run which left Steve Thompson, Danny Grewcock and Matt Dawson with their noses in the Dunedin turf.

"It set the tone that night," Hodgson admitted this week at England's training headquarters at Bagshot. "It certainly wasn't the plan to kick the ball straight to Rokocoko! Even if you kick the ball long you don't expect him to run the length of the field, but somehow he managed to break through. We were on the back foot from the off, while the All Blacks were on fire."

A rampant New Zealand had 30 points on the board by the interval in Graham Henry's first match as coach, while a comparatively inexperienced and weakened England side looked pale shadows of the men who had won the World Cup only seven months earlier.

Hodgson, one of the few England players to emerge with credit from that dismal summer, worked tirelessly as a second-half recovery (of sorts) kept the final score to 36-3. However, there was more misery a week later in Auckland, where New Zealand won 36-12 after the early dismissal of England's Simon Shaw.

"We actually competed with them for the first 10 or 15 minutes," Hodgson recalled. "It might have been for only a short time, but it meant that we could take some positives from the game. Unfortunately the sending-off changed everything."

While some of the senior England players have even more recent memories of All Black power, Hodgson insists he has not given any thought this week to the Lions' humiliation by New Zealand in the summer. The Sale stand-off did not play in any of the Tests, an injury having kept him out when he looked likely to play in the final encounter.

At least Hodgson had a ringside seat from which to size up the men he will face tomorrow as the All Blacks aim to build on crushing victories this month over Wales and Ireland.

"They're a very physical side, but what sets them apart is the fact that they're so skilful with it," Hodgson said. "The Springboks are probably a more physical side, but the way the All Blacks can all play - including the forwards - makes them very difficult to defend against.

"I think that's why they're so successful at the moment. From one to 15 they're all very skilful and adept at handling the ball in all conditions. Off-loading the ball is key to their game."

The England No 10 is particularly relishing the thought of facing Daniel Carter, whom he describes, without hesitation, as "the best stand-off in the world at the moment".

Hodgson said: "He's set the standard. He's a fantastic player. He seems to be able to do everything at the moment. Everything he tries comes off.

"What amazes me is his strength. He doesn't look the biggest, but he seems to brush off tackles easily and he's very good on his feet. It's a fantastic opportunity for me. If you want to be the best you have to play against the best."

He added: "Throughout their back-line they've got players who can challenge you with their pace but are also very strong. You have to make sure you make your tackles because otherwise they can make you look stupid."

Hodgson agrees that the All Blacks will provide the ultimate test of his own defensive game, which in the past has threatened to be his Achilles' heel.

However, two try-saving tackles in last week's victory over Australia were evidence of his hard work on the training field. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," Hodgson said modestly. "It's an area I've been criticised for in the past and it's something that I've been working hard on.

"I've done a lot of work with Phil Larder [England's defensive coach] but it's something I've also been working on at Sale, going back to the days of Jim Mallinder and Steve Diamond. Now Philippe Saint-André and Kingsley Jones are helping me, particularly with my positioning and technique."

However, it is the craft and creativity which Hodgson has regularly showed as the outstanding attacking player in England's back-line that make him one of the home side's match winners.

Will England be forced to play more conservatively against New Zealand? "No, I think we still have to try and play. Otherwise we'd just be running into a brick wall. We just have to make sure that we're spot-on with our execution. When New Zealand get the ball they're very clinical and they do finish things off."

Hodgson, who will take full part in a training session today for the first time this week after injuring his groin against Australia, believes all the pressure will be on New Zealand. "Nobody is expecting us to win so we have nothing to lose," he said. "If we can put them under pressure it will be interesting to see how they handle it."

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