England last registered a victory over New Zealand almost seven and a half years and 80-odd Test matches ago, since when they have sacked two head coaches and seen a third walk out in a huff, been humiliated on both sides of the Equator and booed off the field at Twickenham, lost badly to every Six Nations opponent bar Italy (who are getting closer all the time) and entangled themselves in the tawdriest of sex scandals, during which they flatly refused to help the Auckland police with their inquiries. All things considered, it has not been a golden era.
Nick Easter, the increasingly influential Harlequins No 8 who sounds more like a captain in waiting every time he offers up a few of his thoughts for public consumption, may or may not have been contemplating this tale of woe yesterday, but he was willing to acknowledge that after such a miserable period of red-rose trouble and strife, it was high time the national outfit found a way of beating the best team in the world. "It's been too long: they're the No 1 side, but they're only rugby players," he said, pointing out that the French, the South Africans and the Australians understand what it takes to prevail over the silver-ferned maestros, even if they fail far more often than they succeed.
Victory at Twickenham this afternoon would go a long way towards legitimising Martin Johnson's managerial regime ahead of next year's World Cup, which will be hosted by the New Zealanders themselves. The fact that Johnson is still seeking legitimacy more than two and a half years after unseating Brian Ashton in what amounted to a Rugby Football Union version of a palace coup tells its own story, and it leaves him in a strange place: fireproof as far as his employers are concerned, unproven in the eyes of everyone else. He needs something good to happen if England are to head into 2011 relishing the prospect of another global gathering rather than dreading it.
Those who argue that a perfectly good thing happened in Sydney back in June – and there are many of them – conveniently forget that the Australians were missing more than half a pack that night, yet still came within a simple goal-kick of winning the game. Today, the Wallabies' great rivals from across the Tasman will also be some way short of optimum strength: no Sitiveni Sivivatu or Cory Jane, no Israel Dagg or Conrad Smith or Jimmy Cowan. But as weakened All Black teams are generally strong enough to accomplish the task in hand, the similarities end there.
There was no sign of panic about Johnson yesterday. Quite the opposite, in fact. "We're on the road to the World Cup and there will be bumps along the way," he said. "Things will happen to people: there will be injuries and drops in form. But we're building the continuity and the spirit – all the intangibles at the heart of every successful team – and we'll be a better side at the end of this autumn series than we are now." He even seemed to suggest that a narrow defeat today might be acceptable, if not desirable. "If you perform and you're not quite good enough, you can build on that," he said. "When you don't perform ... that's when it gets difficult."
Intriguingly, there are conflicting views on how England will approach this match – rather refreshing, given the desperate predictablilty of their rugby over recent campaigns. Mike Ford, the defence strategist, indicated during the week that a traditional arm-wrestle was on the cards. Easter, on the other hand, raised the possibility of something entirely different.
"I think we've been too predictable at certain points, and if you're predictable, you're easy to play against," he admitted. "Before going to Paris in March for the last game of the Six Nations, we agreed that it was time we committed to playing rugby, rather than spend all afternoon racing up and down the field chasing kicks. If people wanted to do that, they'd have taken up marathon running. We all thought we should wake up and smell the roses."
Changes of personnel for that game in France – the selection of Toby Flood ahead of Jonny Wilkinson at outside-half and the promotions of Chris Ashton and Ben Foden at wing and full-back respectively – helped the process along, and all three will be on duty this afternoon. So too will Ben Youngs, the button-bright newcomer at scrum-half, and Courtney Lawes, the Northampton lock whose habit of making big-hit tackles in areas of the field rarely visited by more traditionally-equipped second-row forwards has caused much excitement among the coaching staff.
Yet if it is not entirely unheard of for England to play fast and loose against the New Zealanders – 13 years ago, Clive Woodward's side caught them wholly unawares by running the ball from the get-go and emerging with a 26-all draw – the usual method is rather more prosaic: a strong scrum, a punishing driving maul, claustrophobia all round. Ashton and Foden may be the most dangerous broken-field runners to nail down Test positions since Jason Robinson was in his pomp, but England have never defeated these opponents by tripping the light fantastic.
Should the tourists succeed in turning this into a Tri-Nations-style encounter – the kind of match boldly dismissed by Ford in midweek as something less than "real" Test rugby – they will win going away, for it is barely possible to imagine a six-try game in which England score more than two of them. But if Johnson's forwards can deliver the kind of performance produced by Andy Robinson's pack in 2005, a sell-out Twickenham audience will at least have a contest on its hands.
The All Blacks won that match by four points, primarily because the fearsome Tana Umaga contributed one of the great captain's knocks in rugby history. At this stage of the World Cup cycle, the minimum requirement for England is to force Richie McCaw, the current New Zealand captain, into delivering something equally sensational.
Key Twickenham Confrontations
Chris Ashton vs Hosea Gear
England left New Zealand last summer saying that if they ever saw the Maori wing again, it would be years too soon. Gear's hat-trick of tries in Napier put him back on the All Black radar, and his direct opponent today was on the field when he scored them. Ashton is a natural predator himself, though.
Ben Youngs vs Alby Mathewson
Can Youngs build on his performance against the Wallabies in Sydney, or will "second-season syndrome" kick in? The scrum-half is only three caps into his Test career, yet he has the advantage on Mathewson, who is even less experienced. Both are quick and sharp around the fringes. A classic game within a game.
Andrew Sheridan vs Owen Franks
Shoulder reconstructions can leave even the best scrummaging props underpowered, so it will be fascinating to see how Sheridan recovers from the trauma. The All Blacks believe they have unearthed a diamond in Franks and are confident he can attack the English set-piece. If they're right, it could be a long afternoon.Reuse content