The All Blacks have been attempting to goad England into playing rugby of the fast and loose variety ever since the tourists had the temerity to finish within five points of them in Auckland a little under a fortnight ago. For 20 minutes or so last weekend, it worked: the decision-making movers and shakers in the red rose line-up – Danny Care, Owen Farrell, Billy Twelvetrees – were suckered into doing things the way New Zealand wanted them done, with predictable results. It will not happen again on Saturday, surely.
Only the deluded believe that if they make the same mistake often enough, the outcome will somehow be different – a message rammed home by Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, ever since close of play in the second Test in Dunedin. He was at it again today, a couple of hours before the short flight from the South Island to the North Island. “We need a full 80-minute performance to beat these opponents,” he said. “We didn’t manage the game in important areas of the field in the last five minutes of the first Test and it was the same after half-time last week. This is what we need to address if we’re to deliver a win.”
To that end, there has been a significant degree of tinkering. Care and Farrell are both crocked – the Harlequins scrum-half has an ongoing shoulder problem; the Saracens outside-half twanged a ligament in his knee last time out – but it is by no means certain they would have survived whatever the orthopaedic circumstances. Twelvetrees, fresh back from a six-week injury lay-off that blunted his edge in Dunedin, has very definitely been dropped: a sure sign that England are serious about sharpening their option-taking on their first visit to the farmlands of Waikato in 16 years.
“We see it as a hugely important game and the changes have definitely not been made for experimental reasons,” Lancaster said, rejecting the notion that with the series lost, he had shifted his focus to squad-building ahead of next year’s home World Cup. “There’s nothing of the ‘dead rubber’ about this Test. New Zealand are looking for momentum ahead of the Rugby Championship, while we’re after a strong finish to a season that has gone well for us in many respects. It would be a massive accomplishment to beat the All Blacks on their own soil. It would enable everyone to finish on a positive note that reflects the hard work we’ve put in over the year.”
While England have been approximately 100 per cent more competitive on this tour than at any previous point in the professional era, with the single exception of the victorious visit in 2003, a blackwash would be hard to take. Fortunately for them, the emotional charge is crackling as furiously now as it was ahead of the first Test at Eden Park. Dylan Hartley, back in the starting line-up at hooker, is ultra-motivated – born in Rotorua, a shortish drive east from here, he will be performing in front of a good number of family and friends – while the No 8 Billy Vunipola, who arrived late on tour because of the Premiership final, feels he has a major point to prove.
“You could probably say I’ve been waiting impatiently,” said the unusually substantial Saracens back-rower, who had to make do with a bench place in Dunedin following Ben Morgan’s excellent performance in the Auckland game. “Losing two cup finals just before coming out here had been hard to take, so all I wanted was to get back on the field and put it behind me. When I did get on in Dunedin, I think I tried to do too much, rather than do the best thing for the team. I hope I’ve learnt the lesson.”
It is in keeping with Vunipola’s recent run of luck that he returns to the England line-up just as Kieran Read, the world’s best No 8 and quite possibly the sport’s outstanding player in any position, resumes for the All Blacks after a spell of concussion. On the other hand, there was nothing one-sided about the contest between the two when they last met, at Twickenham before Christmas. Read did some brilliant things that day, but Vunipola gave the New Zealanders all the trouble they could handle with his heavy-duty carrying work at close quarters.
“To come out ahead, we’ll need to put them under pressure – to get in their faces and deny them the width they like by being as direct as we can,” he remarked. If that is far easier said than done – his father Fe’ao played for Tonga against the All Blacks in 2000 and lost by the not insignificant margin of 102-0 – it at least sounded like a recipe for success. He and his colleagues have this one last chance to put the ingredients together.
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Parling out of third Test
Geoff Parling, one of the star turns on England's tour of New Zealand, will miss the third and final Test of the series against the All Blacks in Hamilton tomorrow because of injury. The Leicester and Lions lock delivered a 100 per cent line-out return in the opening match in Auckland and was one of the team's leading tacklers in last weekend's one-point defeat in Dunedin, but he picked up a hamstring strain during that game and has not recovered. Joe Launchbury of Wasps resumes his Six Nations engine room partnership with Northampton's Courtney Lawes, while Dave Attwood of Bath fills the gap on the bench.
Two changes for Wales: Gatland gives Lee a start
Warren Gatland has made just two changes to his starting XV for Wales’ second Test against South Africa on Saturday.
Samson Lee, who makes his first start, comes into the front row for veteran Adam Jones while Josh Turnbull replaces Aaron Shingler at flanker.
Gatland’s side were beaten 38-16 in Durban last Saturday and the head coach said: “We were disappointed but we want to finish the season with a big performance and show what we know we are capable of.”
Wales L Williams; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar, M Phillips; G Jenkins, K Owens, S Lee, L Charteris, A Wyn Jones, D Lydiate, J Turnbull, T Faletau.
Replacements M Rees, P James, A Jarvis, J Ball, D Baker, G Davies, J Hook, M Morgan.Reuse content