England pick a fight in mocking the All Blacks' attacking style
The way their rivals tell it, England reached the final of the last World Cup in 2007 playing "anti-rugby" – a profoundly negative, forward-driven, kick-obsessed style of union that undermined the tournament as a spectacle and drove the law-makers to seek radical new ways of selling the sport to a mass audience. The way the red-rose hierarchy told it yesterday, the killjoy spirit is alive and well. Martin Johnson's side will go into this weekend's highly significant match with New Zealand at Twickenham with one change in their starting line-up – Andrew Sheridan for Tim Payne at loose-head prop – and no change at all in their mindset.
Asked for his impressions of a southern hemisphere Tri-Nations series that showed a doubling of the try-count and a sharp drop in the amount of kicking from hand, the England defence strategist Mike Ford startled his audience with what amounted to a dismissive condemnation of much of the stuff played by the All Blacks, the Wallabies and the Springboks. "There were three games in that competition averaging out at 77 points each," he said. "That's not Test rugby. We want this to be an old-fashioned Test and we know what that means. We have a 'no excuses' mentality. We don't say: 'They've scored one try, so we'll score two.' We're comfortable with where we sit defensively, with putting up the shutters, and we're confident we can deliver."
These were brazenly provocative words – not even the brilliant Bledisloe Cup contest between the All Blacks and the Wallabies in Hong Kong last Saturday met with the coach's complete approval – and they will put fire in the bellies of the tourists, who take great pride in their dynamic, free-scoring, cutting-edge brand of rugby. Generally speaking, there is precious little advantage to be gained from mocking the New Zealanders, but Ford knew what he was about. It is five long years since England last asked serious questions of the best team on the planet – New Zealand are always better than everyone else between World Cups – and the back-room staff are clearly intent on summoning the furies this weekend, just as Andy Robinson and his colleagues did in 2005.
Size matters when a rugby match is reduced to a "shit fight", to borrow the current players' jargon, and England will certainly have size on their side. Sheridan, back between the shafts for the first time since the 2009 Six Nations victory over Scotland, weighs in at more than 19 stone, while his front-row partner Steve Thompson brings more than 18st to the party – a factor in his selection over the lighter, faster Dylan Hartley. As for the midfield selection, Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall would have been heavy enough to play in the second row of the scrum in ages past.
On the debit side of the ledger, half a dozen of the first-choice team – Hape, Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes – will find themselves in virgin territory on Saturday. None of them have faced the All Blacks before, and as Johnson, the manager, acknowledged yesterday, there will be a sink-or-swim element to the proceedings.
"In the end, it comes down to how they handle playing against the No 1 side in the world," he said. "They should be excited about it: as a youngster, you grow up wanting to face the All Blacks, don't you? But while it's important to realise they're ranked No 1 for a reason, it's also important to understand that they're still a rugby team. Our challenge is to hit the ground running after four months away from the Test environment. A big part of that is people accepting that they're international players all the year round, not just when they come into camp."
Interestingly, in light of this, Johnson named two uncapped forwards on his bench: the Gloucester lock Dave Attwood and the Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie.
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