New Zealand v England: We have nothing but respect for the All Blacks, says James Haskell
'You have to respect them but you can't be beaten before you get on the field,' says Wasps forward
The last time England beat the All Blacks at Eden Park, which also happens to be the only time, a third of the New Zealand team saw their international careers hit the buffers with an almighty smack. Out went the full-back, the inside centre and, among others, a frank and forthright loose forward by the name of Alex "Grizz" Wyllie, one of the meanest sons of a gun ever to play this hard old sport. If the current red-rose tourists pull off one of the shock results of this or any other century here, will it mean the end of the road for Israel Dagg, Ma'a Nonu and Richie McCaw?
Probably not, on balance: times have changed, as have selection habits, since that wholly unexpected turn of events in 1973, when the Bristol hooker John Pullin led his Five Nations wooden-spooners to a triumph nobody saw coming, least of all the players responsible for it. But make no mistake: should the New Zealanders suffer a first defeat in their spiritual back yard since 1994, when the French scored their celebrated "try from the end of the earth" to win a sensational game of rugby, there will be at least a week of national mourning and some very serious ructions.
Thanks to a meat-headed approach to fixture scheduling that has left more than a dozen leading players pondering the iniquities of a system under which an appearance in a Premiership final costs them a precious England cap, Stuart Lancaster and his fellow red-rose coaches knew the tourists would be significantly under-strength even before the injury setbacks suffered over the last few days. Now that the midfielder Billy Twelvetrees and the scrum-half Danny Care are also off-limits, Lancaster finds himself putting just five genuine first-choice performers on the field.
Twelvetrees was ruled out at the start of the week, at around the time of the training session in which Care misjudged a clearance kick so spectacularly that he stubbed his toe, fell awkwardly on his shoulder and was led away to the treatment room, accompanied by howls of laughter from fellow players and coaches alike. The laughter died down when it emerged that his place in the opening Test against the reigning world champions was in serious doubt.
It stopped completely when Lancaster confirmed that Ben Youngs would be starting in the No 9 shirt, with the recently arrived and possibly jet-lagged Lee Dickson on the bench.
When the television cameras close in on the non-participating Englishmen in the stand and pick out players as central to the cause as Owen Farrell, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood, the rank stupidity of the situation will be so obvious, even the fixture planners on the International Rugby Board might begin to get it. They must already be aware that the bookmakers' odds on a New Zealand victory are the shortest for many a long year: 1-25 in some places. Yet hope springs eternal in the red-rose breast, as the recalled blind-side flanker James Haskell confirmed with a characteristically bullish assessment of the challenge ahead.
"You have to respect the All Blacks but you can't be beaten before you get on the field," said the Wasps forward, who produced some of his most resourceful Test performances in this country during the scandal-blighted 2008 tour and again during the even more embarrassing World Cup campaign three years later. "Eden Park? It has a heritage, for sure, but that's something other people put on you. As far as I'm concerned, we could play them in a car park and it would be the same. You simply know you have to be at your best to win."
Haskell has first-hand experience of New Zealand rugby in the raw, having played at Super XV level in Otago with the Highlanders. "What did I learn? That the players here are mortal, like everyone else. While they don't see a lot of our rugby on television, we're fed reels of their matches, with all that great footwork and those unbelievable tries. When I first arrived, I didn't know what to expect. Was I going to be out of my depth? What I discovered was a passionate rugby culture…and the fact that if you pressurise them, they make the same mistakes as the rest of us.
"Armchair pundits would have you believe the New Zealanders are doing something revolutionary – that they are doing things we can't do. They're not. They're just very good at the basics, and everything in their rugby is geared towards ball skills rather than physical size and power.
"So for us, the important thing is not to worry about the opposition, not to talk ourselves out of producing a performance. No matter who you're playing, if you impose your will you'll get the victory."
Haskell was right about that much. But saying it is one thing…
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