Stranger things have happened in the wild and wacky world of big-time sport, but the record 82,000 crowd at Twickenham will find themselves in Roald Dahl territory if England - poor, benighted, injury-ravaged England - beat the All Blacks for only the third time in a dozen attempts tomorrow. There is every reason to think the contest will be tighter than the doom-and-gloom merchants in the shires appear to believe, but there are virtually no grounds on which to construct an argument for a red-rose victory. This first game of the world champions' international campaign looks like a game too far.
It is not a problem of attitude that promises to cast a pall over the grand opening of the £100m-plus stand at the south end of the famous old ground. Anything but. The mood in the England camp has been remarkably buoyant, considering the desperate chain of events stretching back to the Six Nations defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield last February. It is not even the fact that Martin Corry will be leading three new caps out of the tunnel. Test debutants have been known to make life distinctly uncomfortable for touring New Zealanders, as Kyran Bracken and Jon Callard, heroes of the 1993 victory at Twickenham, would happily confirm.
The problem is in the preparation, or lack of it. England's pack will be handy enough, especially if the destructive Leicester tight-head prop Julian White finds a way of dragging his creaking body through the full 80 minutes' worth of hell on earth. But the new-look back division simply cannot hope to operate with the degree of familiarity necessary to resist the combined threat of Aaron Mauger, Ma'a Nonu, Rico Gear, Joe Rokocoko and Mils Muliaina - a quintet with most of the answers to most of the questions. Now that Daniel Carter, slayer of the Lions in 2005, has been drafted off the bench to replace the stricken Nick Evans at outside-half, the potential for havoc is greater still. Considerably greater.
England have promised to attack from the start, rather than shove the ball up their collective jumper for an hour in the knowledge that no team, not even the All Blacks, can score without it. While we have heard this before, from every national coach who ever drew breath, the long overdue return of Brian Ashton to the back-room staff suggests that this time they mean it. Presupposing that the freshmen - Shaun Perry at half-back, Anthony Allen in the centre, Paul Sackey on the wing - do not freeze, and assuming Charlie Hodgson does not fall to pieces as he did in France last season, the ball will indeed be moved, and moved wide.
This is good news, for if England are to have a gnat's chance of retaining the Webb Ellis Trophy in France next year, they must travel with a set of backs as confident in possession as the likes of Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson were in 2003. The bad news? A game against the All Blacks, particularly one in which the New Zealand captain, Richie McCaw, is involved, is not obviously the place to experiment. The tourists are exceptional - every bit as good as the finest French teams in history - at capitalising on errors in open field. If the masterly McCaw turns over English ball tomorrow, the home side will not see it again until Carter has kicked the conversion.
As if the hosts did not have enough to concern them, the International Rugby Board added to their woes yesterday by announcing, with immediate effect, a "zero tolerance policy" in respect of two of the game's cardinal sins: arguing with referees and trampling opponents on the floor. The first is of no great moment to England, now that Martin Johnson and Matthew Dawson have retired, but the second is a serious issue, not least because the dark art of rucking has enjoyed something of a renaissance in this season's Guinness Premiership campaign.
English players have already found to their cost that officials from other countries are less willing than their fellow countrymen to countenance boots on bodies at the breakdown, and if Joel Jutge, the French referee in charge tomorrow, runs scared of anything resembling a good old-fashioned ruck, the temperature of the game could disappear off the thermometer.
The more relaxed interpretation in the Premiership has paid handsome dividends in ensuring that potential ball-killers think twice before wrapping their bodies around the object of their desire. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee this entirely positive approach will be followed tomorrow.
Coming off the back of five consecutive defeats, England could certainly use a victory - especially as next weekend's meeting with Argentina has a whiff of purest peril about it. Yet Andy Robinson, the head coach, has not been in his customary "win at all costs" mood during the build-up. Common sense tells him that victories over the All Blacks are rarer than radium; therefore, a proud, committed performance from a highly motivated pack of forwards, plus some strong defence and the occasional flash of inspiration from a back line in flux, would satisfy him, irrespective of the outcome. If England perform well, they will not lose by more than 10 points. At this stage of proceedings, it is as much as they can ask of themselves.
And who knows? The All Blacks may mess up, as they did against England in 1973, 1983, 1993 and 2003. (What a shame this game isn't being played in 2013). "We shouldn't forget completely that we're still world champions," said Rob Andrew, the former international outside-half now facing his first game as Twickenham's director of elite rugby. "We're facing the team who see themselves as pretenders to that title, but we hold it at the moment. They're under pressure as well, it seems to me. Perhaps they're under more pressure than we are. The expectation on them is huge."
That much is true, and it explains why New Zealand have not won a World Cup in almost 20 years. Unfortunately for the Twickenham crowd, the chances of them failing again in 2007 are far greater than those of them finishing second tomorrow.
£100m buys Twickenham a new record
Francis Baron, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union (right), and Richard Knight, the stadium director, are pressed into action yesterday to install the last seat in the new £100m South Stand at Twickenham. The stand will be opened before kick-off tomorrow and adds a further 8,000 seats, making the new capacity 82,000. A full house tomorrow will set a new stadium record, beating the 75,157 who saw Wales win in January, 1950.
The labours of Hercules Three Englishmen with a job on their hands
Paul Sackey (v Joe Rokocoko)
The last piece in the red-rose jigsaw for this game - the Wasps wing was called up on Tuesday when Mark Cueto dropped out through injury - Sackey makes his international debut against one of the world's great attacking threats: Joe Rokocoko, the Fijian-born finisher with a try-scoring record to die for. Rokocoko has played in 36 Tests, and crossed the opposition line on 32 occasions. To put it another way, he scores once every 90 minutes. Against England, he is currently galloping along at a try a game. Sackey will do well to keep him to that.
George Chuter (v Keven Mealamu)
If any of England's less familiar figures have earned the right to play international rugby by paying their dues, George Chuter fits the bill. The Leicester hooker spent years as a journeyman forward - a Saturday afternoon punchbag for his elders and betters in the Test squad. Keven Mealamu, on the other hand, is a thoroughbred. Good enough to play for New Zealand Under-16s as a flanker, he was identified early as a potential world-beater and has spent the last four years fulfilling expectations. Mealamu was the All Blacks' stand-out player when they won here in 2005, and is even better now.
Lewis Moody (v Richie McCaw)
If Daniel Carter is the finest rugby player in the world, it is by inches rather than miles. So who is his nearest challenger for the accolade? Richie McCaw, the All Blacks' open-side flanker and captain. He is probably the fittest No 7 in the game, and is very definitely the outstanding turnover specialist. McCaw's long-range support is jaw-droppingly good, his footballing skills are top-notch, his line-out work is on the button and his tackling is ruthlessly efficient. Anything else? Lots, but space restrictions make it impossible to scratch beneath the surface of his accomplishments. McCaw's opponent tomorrow is Lewis Moody of Leicester, to whom we can only wish the very best of British.Reuse content