England tour of New Zealand: Red-rose dare to dream of glory deep in enemy territory
Tourists' strong show in first Test lifts hopes of reversing poor record in south
"When poked at with a stick, the tuatara will emerge." The All Blacks have never been slow to fall back on an old Maori saying when they go in search of their "mana" – their sense of authority, their status, their prestige – and it may well be that this intriguing phrase has been uppermost in their minds since winning narrowly in Auckland six days ago. The tuatara is an indigenous reptile, enshrined in New Zealand lore as a harbinger of death and disaster. England supporters will get the point.
Saturday's game here in the South Island, the second Test of three, is likely to be very hard indeed. England are bristling with hostile intent after the near miss at Eden Park left them with jumbled-up emotions: encouraged, on the one hand, by the resourcefulness of their performance in the absence of so many leading players; profoundly deflated, on the other, by the nature of the defeat. The New Zealanders, meanwhile, have been cut to the quick by an unusually critical reaction from their own kith and kin.
The idea that the tourists are daring to think in terms of victory in a city that has given them nothing but trouble and strife – they have played here only twice at international level, conceding precisely 100 points – would, under normal circumstances, be enough to send the average stern-faced Otago farmer into fits of laughter. But it looks and smells different this time around. England, beefed up by the return of competitors as relentless as the outside-half Owen Farrell and the blind-side flanker Tom Wood, believe this is their moment.
"I felt we had the better of New Zealand last weekend," said Wood, who watched the Eden Park Test from the stand, having arrived late on tour after leading Northampton to their first Premiership title at Twickenham. "The All Blacks have proved how dangerous they are at the back end of matches on countless occasions, but we never accept losing, regardless of the opposition. To fail again would be very painful, because we didn't come here to lose any game, let alone two on the bounce and leave ourselves staring down the barrel of a 3-0 series defeat.
"We are custodians of the shirt for only a short time, and it's down to us to show the next generation of England players the path: to pave the way for them so they can walk a little taller when they're chosen to represent their country. So we're here to win. That means getting our detail and process right: we'll be looking for good set-piece ball and gain-line success, which will help us generate momentum. If we can do that…"
Children perform a traditional Maori greeting to England players in Dunedin (Getty Images)
None of those things will come easily to England, even though they are fielding, for the first time since Stuart Lancaster assumed control of red rose affairs, the back division of their dreams. By restoring Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell to the centre positions and moving Manu Tuilagi to the right wing, the tourists have pieced together a threequarter line significantly bigger than the All Black version – no mean feat, given the presence of Ma'a Nonu and Julian Savea in the silver-ferned ranks. But the tale of the tape will not count for much if the world champions win the battle of the little grey cells.
It will count for even less if Richie McCaw and his less-than-merry band of men prevail in the emotional sphere. We can rest assured that the All Blacks will be cold-eyed in their fury, that those senior players castigated for performing well below standard in Auckland – the centre Nonu, the prop Tony Woodcock, even the captain himself – will respond with splinters of ice in the brain, as well as fire in the veins.
Wood, currently enjoying the time of his sporting life after a series of momentous victories at club level, understands this only too well: an important part of his rugby upbringing was spent in this very corner of New Zealand, with the Oamaru club in the north of Otago. "I wanted to separate myself from the herd by doing something different and getting away from home, because you can easily become a robot inside the system," he explained. "This is what helped me grow up as a player and I thank the people here for their efforts. I'd like to think they still have a vested interest in me, that they take some pride in my achievements. I certainly took a lot from them in terms of appreciating the passion they have for the game.
"It's that passion that helps the All Blacks win so many tight games: their winning habit comes from self-belief and from an understanding of what's at stake when they pull on the shirt. So yes, the emotional side of the game will be crucial and we have to get it right. If we do, then it will be a very powerful thing. If we get it wrong, it could undo us."
There are any number of things that could undo England if they are not at their very strongest in mind, body and spirit. Yes, they have a chance of squaring the series on Saturday – certainly their best chance of winning a Test on All Black soil since the World Cup-winning vintage managed it in Wellington back in 2003 – but a hell of a lot will have to go exactly to plan. Beware the tuatara.
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