In 20 years of hurt for the world’s best rugby union-playing nations, none of them has beaten the All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park. The only team of note not to lose on New Zealand’s most hallowed ground in that time is Wales, mainly because they haven’t played there.
So England’s bid to end the sequence next Saturday while lacking half their first-choice team due to injuries and a ludicrous clash of fixtures seems a doomed venture, but the tourists’ obdurate captain, Chris Robshaw, is up for the challenge. “We are going into their back yard to try to take their unbeaten record,” said Robshaw (below), referring simultaneously to the world champions’ other hot streak that has seen them win all their 14 Tests since the loss to England at Twickenham at the end of 2012. “If we want to be realistic and serious contenders in the World Cup next year, this is the place we have to go and make a mark.”
They will do so by treading very carefully off the field in a country where the England squads of 2008 and 2011 took the phrase “tour party” too literally. There has been no discussion of curfews but it appears Robshaw’s men intend to heed the alcohol limit recommended by the then RFU disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett in his 2008 tour report – but which was overlooked by some at the 2011 World Cup that ended in defeat to France at Eden Park in the quarter-finals.
“We’re going there to work,” said Robshaw. “I’m sure at the end if we’ve had a successful tour we’ll have a couple of drinks at the bar. But if we’re going out for late nights and that’s distracting our recovery methods we are not being the best we can be.”
Not all England’s recent travellers to New Zealand have been plastered in the pub or across the newspapers. Robshaw himself led a blameless bunch quietly in and out of Napier as captain of a midweek team beaten by the Maori in June 2010.
“We were there the whole week and didn’t see many people,” he said, “then all of a sudden at game-time 10,000 people came out and flooded the gates. There were about 150 people doing the haka on the side of the pitch. New Zealand is a brilliant place to go and explore and play.”
Among the luminaries lying in wait, Kieran Read played for the first time in six weeks for the Crusaders against the Force on Friday and the No 8 and reigning world player of the year was on song from a second-minute sidestep and round-the-corner offload to a last-minute scrummaging penalty try. Unless the All Blacks’ coach, Steve Hansen, uncharacteristically treats the Eden Park Test as a trial match, Read and his buddy Richie McCaw – who also went the distance against the Force – will be their usual menacing selves at the rear of the scrum. But there is quality everywhere, from Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks in the front row to Israel Dagg and Julian Savea in the back three. Dan Carter’s sabbatical has left Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden to dispute the No 10 jersey.
England have Freddie Burns, Danny Cipriani and Billy Twelvetrees as potential fly-halves, because Owen Farrell and Steve Myler – in common with everyone from Saracens and Northampton – were tied up in yesterday’s Premiership final, and Bath’s George Ford is injured.
Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, was instrumental as the second-string Saxons’ boss in 2009 and 2010 in the decision to drop Cipriani from the senior side. “He had been put on a pedestal by a lot of people and it was expected to continue,” Lancaster said. “Danny has probably matured a bit and recognises now when he looks back he perhaps didn’t get everything right.”
The optimist in Lancaster can see a happy dilemma for the second and third Tests in Dunedin and Hamilton if England’s fly-half in Auckland has a great match under the gaze of Farrell and the 14 or so others who will be spectators on Saturday after flying to New Zealand tomorrow.
Opportunity knocks for Joe Launchbury to be a leader without the comfort blanket of Courtney Lawes’ smashing tackles; for Mike Brown to make better memories than the night out in Auckland in 2008 that ended with a £1,000 fine and a reprimand; for Worcester’s Chris Pennell to steal a march as Brown’s full-back back-up; and for Manu Tuilagi to show his world class to an audience who remember him only for being fished out of the harbour.
The All Blacks may start slowly in their first Test since November. They can be expected to give the ball some air, allowing the dog of England’s defence to see the rabbit, as it were. The obvious danger as England seek only a second away win over New Zealand since John Pullin’s “white tornados” won at Eden Park in 1973 is the glue in that defence dissolving into mush without key figures such as Tom Wood, Dylan Hartley, Lawes and Brad Barritt. Only 10 of the 23 who played in the 2012 Twickenham win are available for next Saturday.
As even the obdurate Robshaw put it: “We are a confident group, we believe in what we’re about. But it’s one thing believing it off the pitch and another replicating it in the pressure environment when there’s 30,000 people against you and you’re thousands of miles away from home.”
England in Auckland
1963 L v N Zealand 21-11
1973 W v N Zealand 16-10
1998 L v N Zealand 40-10
2004 L v N Zealand 36-12
2008 L v N Zealand 37-20
2011 W v Scotland 16-12
2011 L v France 19-12