The last time England finished within a single score of the All Blacks, they did it by summoning the warrior spirit. The year was 2005 – the match took place a few short months after the New Zealanders had obliterated the British and Irish Lions in what was quickly rechristened the Land of the Long White Shroud – and the contest was brutally hard. But for the resistance of the great silver-ferned centre and captain Tana Umaga, the favourites might easily have come unstuck.
Stuart Lancaster knows his history and is prepared to unleash the dogs in an attempt to pressure the world champions into uncharacteristic errors. “We can’t be hypnotised by them,” said the red-rose coach, his calm and reasonable manner spiced with something a little more intense. “There’s no doubt that we have to attack them physically, and while I’m not talking about blind physicality – we want to be making clear and accurate decisions, not running around headless – we believe that if you get stuck into them for the full 80 minutes, you can force mistakes.”
In support of this, Lancaster pointed to last weekend’s close game with South Africa. “Many people see the Springboks as the most physical side in world rugby, yet we came out on top in many of the contact areas,” he said. “To give ourselves a chance of winning this game, we need that component to work for us again. We need to scrummage well, improve on our line-outs and restarts and make our hits count in defence.”
All of which England are capable of doing. The front row of Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole went into the set-piece confrontation with the Boks determined to right the wrongs of the previous week’s outing against Australia and achieved their aim – not least by forcing Jannie du Plessis, that South African bear of a tight-head prop, off the field after a mere 40 minutes of rugby. The pack will also be confident of ironing out glitches in the aerial game, while the reappearance of Owen Farrell alongside the defence leader Brad Barritt should beef things up in the tackle department.
But there are two areas – the breakdown and the “exit” strategy – that could undermine everything England try to do in this, their highest-profile game of the calendar year by some considerable distance. Lancaster has been working on both in training this week, in an attempt to nullify the ball-winning threat posed by the All Black captain Richie McCaw and ensure that Farrell and his fellow decision-makers in the back line, the scrum-half Ben Youngs and the full-back Alex Goode, do not “commit suicide” by attempting clever stunts on their own side of the halfway line.
“If you look at scrums, line-outs and breakdowns, you see where the balance of a game lays,” the coach said. “There might be 10 scrums, 15 line-outs and between 180 and 200 breakdowns. New Zealand are very, very good in that last area and it’s been a big subject for us this week.”
As for the importance of playing the game in the optimum parts of the field, does not Farrell have some previous in getting this wrong? Against the Boks in Durban last June, for instance? Lancaster did not betray even a hint of concern. “What Owen has that sets him apart from many outside-halves is a ‘big game temperament’,” the coach replied. “He has been outstanding in training over the course of this autumn series, he’s made a positive impact every time we’ve brought him off the bench and when you think what he delivered in the last Six Nations as a 20-year-old coming into a completely new side, you can see that he has some huge qualities as a Test player.”
From Farrell’s perspective, the forthcoming challenge is significantly greater than the one he faced last weekend. Against the Boks, he came off the bench early in the second half and spent 30-odd claustrophobic minutes on the front foot against a similarly youthful opponent in Patrick Lambie. Tomorrow, he could find himself going the full 80 against Daniel Carter, the heaviest scorer in the history of international rugby and the brightest star in an All Black back division better described as a constellation.
Yet Lancaster was unwilling to separate the individual from the collective by paying Carter special attention. “The All Blacks have threats all over the field,” he said. “There’s no point concentrating on just one of them and ignoring 14 others.” As the New Zealanders are so potent in so many areas, might there be a little reverse psychology at work? Might the coach be able to use England’s underdog status to free the red-rose spirit? Again, he would not play ball. “There’s no more freedom in being underdogs because I never put any restrictions on the players’ mindsets,” he responded. “What we have here is a no-fear environment, whoever we’re playing.”
Should Farrell pick up an injury or fall victim to the shepherd’s crook treatment, Freddie Burns will make his international debut. Many good judges see him as a long-term option in the principal playmaking role, especially now he is developing the full-range of game-management skills to go with his individual trickery and dead-eye marksmanship from the kicking tee. If the Gloucester outside-half gives a decent account of himself, he will be guaranteed a place in the Six Nations squad when it is named in January.
“We know he’s been performing well in the Premiership and that he brings something special to a team with his creativity,” Lancaster said. “He’s an exciting player, and I’m excited to see him in this position.”
At 22, Burns is a year older than the elder statesman in the starting team, and on the Carter Scale of Attacking Brilliance, he is also ahead of his immediate rival. But when it comes to a scrap, there is no comparison. On Saturday, of all days, England will need every last drop of Farrell’s belligerence.