The All Black team that graces Twickenham today was described this week, albeit by one of their own, John Kirwan, as the best XV the world has seen. Their captain, Richie McCaw, was classified by an Englishman, Austin Healey, as the greatest rugby player of all time.
McCaw dusts off all this ego swag like dandruff from his shoulder. He calls it “noise”, something for rugby’s chattering classes to get excited about in the week of a big encounter but of no significance whatsoever to him or the other men in black.
His reaction is a measure of the trouble England are in this afternoon. Had Stuart Lancaster a first-choice complement from which to choose, England would start the match as underdogs. With two-thirds of an untested back division comprised of new, inexperienced units and the front five revised yet again, England are held together comparatively by sticky tape, as opposed to the superglue binding the visitors.
Add to this the vox pop titbit from Down Under that reveals England to be the team to whom New Zealand would least like to lose, you get a sense of the relish with which McCaw and Co are looking forward to feeding on white shirts.
McCaw broadened his personal “hate-to-lose-against” category to include every team he faces, which did nothing to diminish the sense that English optimism is about to be buried in the same graveyard from which it was whistled.
Asked if this match was a focal point, a priority, McCaw replied in the affirmative. “I think so for a number of reasons,” he said. “You think back two years ago, we got tripped up here. Last year was a hell of a match that was in the balance for a fair bit. When you get over here you want to start pretty well. Obviously, there are more games to come but there is a bit of edge to this week. We have beaten this team three times this year. It would be nice to back that up.”
So how much better can this All Blacks unit get? “You would hope quite a bit. We are always looking at ways to improve. Looking back at the end of the Rugby Championship there were some good bits to come out of it but we got run pretty close in the last two games and were not 100 per cent happy with the way we were playing. If you stand still in this game you are in trouble. I feel there is quite a bit of room for improvement and that is what makes it so exciting.”
According to McCaw, the one-off nature of the event adds to the frisson of an autumn international at Twickenham. It is not part of a series. There is no right of reply. “You leave it [the result] there for 12 months, though this year it was six. You have to get it dead right on the day, there is no next week.”
A lot has been made of the imposing bulk of the returning Sonny Bill Williams. Impressive as his musculature might be, many in this All Black team would pass for teachers on a geography field trip. The likes of the Smiths, Aaron and Ben, and Aaron Cruden are made for plaid jackets with elbow pads and there is even a non-threatening air to the mountainous Sam Whitlock as he wanders around the foyer in his flip-flops and shorts.
Modest deportment is, according to McCaw, central to the All Black ethos, making them the team they are. “You let other people talk about that sort of stuff [eulogies, praise, etc]. Most of the boys don’t even hear it. It’s peripheral. Whether it’s good or bad, if you let opinions or attitudes change the way you take to the week you are in trouble.
“Mostly our guys stay reasonably grounded and focused on the facts of what we need to do. There is always the next match in this game and you have to be switched on to that pretty quick. You can’t sit back and reflect too much. After the Rugby Championship, having won that, you pat yourself on the back a little bit and then it is straight on to the next one. The team you are playing against doesn’t worry about that stuff.”Reuse content