Owen Farrell, the inexperienced England outside-half shortlisted for the Player of the Year award due to be announced next week, will come face to face with an infinitely more celebrated contender at Twickenham: Daniel Carter of New Zealand, the world’s best back and just about the biggest name in the sport. This extreme test of a young man’s nerve and character was confirmed when Carter was declared fit and ready for the All Blacks’ final game of 2012, during which they have gone 13 games without defeat.
Add to this the seven victories New Zealand pieced together in winning the World Cup on their own soil in September and October last year, and England find themselves attempting to end one of the longest unbeaten records in rugby history. Does this leave Farrell feeling intimidated? Not obviously. "Rugby is a game I love, not a game that scares me," the Saracens midfielder said yesterday on being named in the red-rose starting line-up.
Carter missed his country's comfortable victory over Wales in Cardiff last weekend after suffering an injury to his lower leg - some called it a calf strain, others a tweaked Achilles tendon - during goal-kicking practice. News of his return for this game was warmly welcomed in the tourists' camp and for good reason: all but two of the playing party have been suffering from an outbreak of norovirus, commonly known as "winter vomiting bug", and have spent part of the week confined to their rooms.
It is 17 years since the All Blacks suffered a mass bout of food poisoning on the eve of the World Cup final against South Africa in Johannesburg - a match the Springboks narrowly won against most expectations, much to the delight of a certain Nelson Mandela, who presented his countrymen with the Webb Ellis Trophy. On that occasion, the New Zealanders suspected foul play. This time, they are more phlegmatic about things.
"It's been a difficult week because a lot of the guys have been sick with diarrhoea and vomiting," said Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, in naming a full-strength team for this climactic Test. "Getting the mix right in training has been tough, but we hope we've handled it smartly enough for people to have enough left in their tanks. Apparently, half the United Kingdom is suffering from it. I guess it's a present from the colonials."
As a general rule, it is the players facing the All Blacks who spend the 48 hours before the match struggling at both ends, as it were. But there was no hint of physical weakness - or, indeed, fragility of any other kind - about Farrell as he looked ahead to the most significant contest of his 10-month international career.
"There will be nerves, obviously: there always are before a big game," he said. "But the moment you let them get the better of you is the moment you get caught out. Carter was one of the people I first noticed when I started watching rugby union rather than rugby league: it was in 2005, he was playing against the British and Irish Lions and he looked like someone who was in complete control. He's a world-class player, clearly: a fantastic player, if not the best there is. But I feel I've been progressing each week in training and that I'm doing the right things. And as I say, there's no point putting your opponents up there and being scared of them."
Farrell, off the bench and into the starting line-up because of the toe injury affecting Toby Flood of Leicester, is the one change to the side that came up just short against the Springboks last weekend. As expected, the uncapped Freddie Burns of Gloucester will be the back-up No 10, while the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes is also among the substitutes, in place of the demoted Mouritz Botha of Saracens. Lawes has not been involved in the match-day squad since February.
New Zealand will have almost 800 caps' worth of experience in their run-on team, with the great flanker and captain Richie McCaw appearing in his 116th Test. The least experienced player, the left wing Julian Savea, will be winning his ninth cap.
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