Shortly before kick-off at Twickenham, Chris Robshaw and his England side will be treated to one of two possible performances of the New Zealand haka. It could be the traditional “Ka Mate” version, which starts with a cheery line about death, or it may be the modern “Kapa O Pango” confection, with its talk of “rising dominance” and “emerging supremacy” and its final throat-slitting gesture. Either way, there are easier ways to embark on a game of rugby.
It says something about the might of the current All Black team – indeed, of All Black teams down the ages – that this Maori war dance business continues to grip the attention of audiences around the world rather than have them rolling in the aisles. If the English tried to pull a similar stunt by jigging around to the theme tune from “The Archers”, they would be laughed out of every town in Christendom.
The home side are hoping and praying that they are not laughed out of London town. As Mike Catt, the assistant coach, said during his eve of match address: “If you go to sleep for five minutes against the New Zealanders, they’ll batter you. They’re an outstanding attacking side, equipped with X-factor players who have world-class skills. Defensively, we’ll have to be on our mettle; attack-wise, we’ll have to take whatever opportunities come our way. We’ve taken some confidence from our game against the Springboks last weekend because we felt we stopped them physically, but this will have to be an 80-minute performance.”
Predictably enough, Catt declined to throw so much as an ounce of his weight behind the theory that these All Blacks have their weaknesses, and with good reason. Charged with maximising England’s offensive threat while minimising the danger posed by the outstanding midfield combination in the world game – Daniel Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith are a good 30 per cent better than any trio to be found in Europe – the coach saw no advantage in making himself a hostage to fortune.
There is, however, a way England can make a game of it, provided they are sufficiently fit and committed to follow a long, hard road to its end. If they scrummage as strongly as they did against the Springboks and sharpen up their act at the line-out, they will put the All Black tight forwards under significant pressure and force Richie McCaw, the great open-side flanker and captain, to scrap for the loose ball in areas not of his own choosing. That in turn will put Carter in a straitjacket and leave Julian Savea and Israel Dagg, those lethal broken-field runners, on starvation rations.
Always assuming, of course, that England hang on to the ball. As Wales discovered to their acute discomfort in Cardiff last weekend, a fumble compounded by a botched first-up tackle in the All Black 22 equals a try at the other end of the field. Strongly as England’s backs will defend – Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Mike Brown are rarely found wanting in the crash-bang-wallop department – there will be no stopping the All Blacks once they find a way behind red-rose lines.
Tom Wood, the most aggressive of the England forwards, is acutely aware of the need for implacability. “We have to make sure we’re not in awe of the New Zealanders – that we do things on our own terms rather than theirs and impose our game on them,” said the Northampton flanker. “We know we’ll have to be at our best, and that we’ll need a little luck along the way, but at the very least we’ll let them know they’ve been in a game.”
Wood is partially a product of a New Zealand rugby education: in his late teens, he played for a club side in Otago while working his passage in a variety of temporary jobs. “The thing that strikes you most about them is their sheer passion for the game,” he said. “They might be out in the fields milking cows at four in the morning, yet they’d still run over hot coals to make a training session on a wet Tuesday night. I remember a woman in the pie shop telling me that my body position was six inches too high going into rucks. I also remember doing some teaching at the local school and all the kids there performing a haka just for me. They had what they called a ‘blood match’ against a rival school and I had to coach them for it. I was known as ‘Tom the Pom’.”
If Wood brings that same depth of passion to the England mix, he also brings the kind of hard edge that is a fundamental requirement for any side with serious ambitions of beating the All Blacks. His ruthless streak will be at the heart of the red-rose effort, and if he can drag slightly more conciliatory types like Ben Morgan along with him, the forward pack will at least leave a mark on opponents who have set their hearts on defending an unbeaten record stretching back 15 months.
England are not defending an unbeaten record of any description having lost their last two games. “We’ve learnt some lessons over the last couple of weeks and learnt them the hard way,” said Robshaw, the captain. “That goes for me in particular. I knew when I signed up for this job that there were would be times like this.”
Robshaw has found himself under an avalanche of heavy criticism over his decision-making at important moments, some of it harsh and some of it wildly wrong-headed. That he has not been swept away by it proves he is every bit as resilient as Wood, his fellow flanker and, conceivably, an alternative candidate as captain for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. The best way the Harlequins forward can secure his position is by upsetting the odds and ensuring McCaw, the most successful skipper in rugby history, spends his six-month sabbatical brooding on a defeat no one saw coming.