Test matches in Dunedin are not what they used to be: instead of rickety old Carisbrook with its ancient terracing, renowned throughout the union world as the “house of pain”, games are now staged at an all-seater stadium with a see-through roof – which presumably makes it the “house of pane”. But some things never change in All Black country. The moment an England team goes close to winning in these parts, the locals accuse them of playing a boring, dismal, cynical brand of anti-rugby.
They were at it again yesterday: according to the New Zealand cognoscenti, the tourists’ weekend performance at Eden Park, where they held the world champions for 78 of the 80 minutes and might easily have won, was a masterpiece of sharp practice. As they began their preparations for the second Test in Dunedin in four days’ time, England were being castigated for alleged delaying tactics at scrum and line-out – a dastardly plot designed to slow the All Blacks’ tempo and, according to one particularly vituperative newspaper columnist, drag the international union game “one giant step backwards”.
Under Stuart Lancaster’s sure-footed stewardship, England rarely give their critics the satisfaction of a response, preferring to let them simmer away. But there was a retort of sorts from the hooker Dylan Hartley, who, being a New Zealander by birth, was just the man to issue it. The Northampton captain watched the Eden Park match from the stand, having been one of the many late arrivals on tour. “Why would we want to slow the game down?” he asked.
“Gone are the days of the English rugby stereotype – of the big, lazy forward packs who rely purely on scrum and maul. We’re not that pack any more. We have variation in our game; we have ball-carriers, we have handlers. Maybe we’ll have a huddle before a line-out, but that’s to get clarity on the call.
“You don’t want to speed things up unnecessarily, because you’re always looking for control, but I think we’re fit enough to play at a high tempo: we’ve just pushed the world’s No 1 team in a very competitive match and, while you have to respect them for showing why they’re ranked where they are by scoring in the last two minutes, we made more line breaks than they did.”
Hartley’s family and a large number of his friends still live in Rotorua and the wider Bay of Plenty area and he would love nothing more than to give a good account of himself before their very eyes. “I’ve never played against the All Blacks here, so I’d like to make people proud of me on this tour,” he said.
As England’s senior hooker, he is certain to be involved in that game, just as he will be in the match-day party this weekend. But he cannot be sure of much else at this stage, for Lancaster will consider Rob Webber’s claim to the starting spot after the Bath man’s impressive performance at Eden Park.
Along with a fistful of other recent first-choice players in the Six Nations – Luther Burrell and Owen Farrell; Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Billy Vunipola – the 28-year-old forward had to settle for a watching brief after participating in the Premiership final at Twickenham seven days previously. So too did a couple of walking wounded: the Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees and the scrum-half Danny Care. While Farrell, Care, Lawes and Wood are regarded as virtual certainties to reclaim their places in the elite team, the others have an uncomfortable wait ahead of them.
“I feel fit and strong and I’ll be ready if I’m asked because my shoulder isn’t giving me any jip,” Hartley said, referring to the nasty injury he suffered at the back end of the domestic campaign. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if Stuart and Graham Rowntree [the England forwards coach] stuck with Rob, who took his opportunity well last weekend.”
Talking of hookers, there are those who think that Luke Cowan-Dickie, the 20-year-old from Exeter, has what it takes to force his way into the squad for next year’s World Cup, even though he has yet to nail down a regular starting spot at club level. Sadly, Cowan-Dickie jarred his knee in training and is returning home.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, London Welsh have signed former England fly-half Olly Barkley for their return to the Premiership next season. Barkley most recently played for the Scarlets.