History? It’s just one damned thing after another. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the history of Test matches between England and New Zealand, which largely consists of one All Black try after another. Stuart Lancaster’s team may have beaten the world champions in unusually dramatic style last year, but there is barely a living rugby soul out there who expects a second lightning strike at Twickenham on Saturday.
Not even Andy Farrell, as competitive a rugby beast as was ever born in these islands, was prepared to talk in terms of “expectation” in his eve-of-match address, although that might change radically the moment he sets foot in the home dressing room today. Instead, the man responsible for coaching the England backs – and, perhaps more significantly under the circumstances, the construction of the team’s defensive system – showered praise on Richie McCaw’s outstanding side.
Asked whether he was surprised that the All Blacks had taken to calling themselves “the most dominant team in the history of the world” or some such overblown nonsense, he responded with a few carefully chosen words that accurately reflected the tourists’ state of supremacy. “You shoot for the stars in this game,” Farrell said, “and if anyone in any team sport is near reaching that level right now, it’s the New Zealanders. What they’re achieving at this moment is quite special.”
Yet if England are unlikely to beat these brilliant All Blacks in the try count – in 33 meetings stretching back well over a century, they have met that challenge successfully on only four occasions – they may well match the tourists’ emotional charge. Lancaster, the head coach, spoke earlier this week of his determination to harness the power of history as a means of inspiring his side, just as the New Zealanders do every time they pull on a silver-ferned shirt in anger, and Farrell was right there with him yesterday.
“That kind of thing plays in rugby more than in many other sports because it’s a battlefield out there,” he said. “It’s a ferocious sport – there isn’t one coward who ever set foot on a rugby pitch. Yes, you need to be cunning in your execution, but you also have to be at the right emotional level to perform. We’ve been talking a lot about what we’re about as English people – people from a small island who have often been underdogs but always come out fighting. We have a proven history of being at our best when a challenge is laid down to us. What we’re not great at doing is letting each other know how good we are, so we’ve done plenty of work on building the players’ belief in those around them.”
England will be stoked up for this one every bit as much as their opponents, who, despite a week of public denials, are privately consumed by the idea of vengeance. Yet to stand a chance of taking the All Blacks into a decisive final quarter, where pressure at close quarters and the goal-kicking of Farrell’s chip-off-the-old-block son Owen could pay dividends, the bookies’ outsiders must play with ice in their veins as well as fire.
“This is what impresses me about Dan Carter,” said Farrell Snr as the discussion turned to the celebrated All Black outside-half, who will win his 100th cap. “He shows great composure under pressure. He’s excellent at putting away all the negative aspects of the game and getting on with the next job. People will always make errors at the top level of rugby, but Carter seems better than most at batting those errors away.”
There have been moments in the past when Carter seemed incapable of making even a single error, let alone “errors” plural as referred to by Farrell. His performance against the British & Irish Lions in Wellington eight years ago was as close to perfection as we are likely to see: if he was helped by the profoundly imperfect nature of the opposition, there was no disputing the sublime quality of his contribution that day.
Things do not always go his way with quite the same ease, however. At Twickenham a year ago he looked as flustered as any of his countrymen as England controlled the forward contest, kicked their way to a handy interval lead and then sent Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling-ball, rolling down the All Blacks’ alley and scattering them to every far-flung point of the compass.
But here’s the problem: Carter did not get where he is today by making the same mistakes against the same opposition on the same rectangle of mud, and as the Tuilagi dimension is lost to today’s proceedings – the Leicester centre’s torn pectoral muscle threatens to wreck his entire season – it is difficult to see England posing a similar threat with ball in hand.
A mere 12 months after beating the New Zealanders in a genuinely free-scoring encounter for only the second time in 108 years, Lancaster’s men are surely hoping that this game turns out to be claustrophobically tight in every department.
Which is where Chris Robshaw, the England captain, comes in. Last season, the Harlequins flanker and his fellow forwards gave the All Blacks a thorough seeing-to at the tackle area, to the extent that McCaw spent the entire afternoon peering at his own innards. Despite the exceptional quality of his performances in a red rose shirt since succeeding Lewis Moody as national captain almost two years ago – statistically speaking, he has been in a class of his own – Robshaw has yet to convince his critics that he is an open-side nature by instinct, rather than by circumstance. A second bullying of the maestro McCaw would surely bring the debate to a close.
Farrell and the other England back-roomers believe they know how the tourists will approach this contest. “We all understand what makes them tick,” the coach said. “I’ve read some comments from Steve Hansen [the New Zealand head coach] about how the Blacks have some things up their sleeve, but they’re very consistent in what they do. And very successful, of course.”
Which is precisely the point. It is one thing plotting to stop counter-attacking talents as dangerous as the full-back Israel Dagg, the new wing Charles Piutau, the centre Ma’a Nonu and the majestic Carter. Bringing those plans to fruition is quite another matter. Control will be everything for England today, just as it was last season. The question is this: have these All Blacks finally risen to a state of uncontrollability?
Top five England-All Black battles: From a Seventies upset in Auckland to Lomu’s demolition job
New Zealand 10 England 16: Auckland, September 1973
Eden Park is the hardest place for tourists to win, yet in the dark days of the 1970s John Pullin led his team to victory there. Peter Squires, ‘Stack’ Stevens and Tony Neary scored the tries.
England 15 New Zealand 9: Twickenham, November 1993
Sean Fitzpatrick’s tourists were tough, as debutant Kyran Bracken discovered, having his ankle ligaments rearranged by Jamie Joseph. Yet he played his part in a win built on Jon Callard’s kicking.
New Zealand 45 England 29: Cape Town, June 1995
Jonah’s match. England fancied their chances of going all the way in the World Cup after knocking out Australia in the quarter-final. Lomu demolished them almost single-handedly, scoring four of his side’s six tries.
New Zealand 13 England 15: Wellington, June 2003
A backs-against-the-wall triumph. Jonny Wilkinson kicked the points – four penalties and a dropped goal – but it was Martin Johnson’s pack, depleted by sin-binnings, who scrummaged their way to an unlikely victory.
England 19 New Zealand 23: Twickenham, November 2005
The most brutal confrontation in recent memory. Andy Robinson’s red-rose side would have won but for Tana Umaga’s majestic captain’s performance in the All Black midfield.