Stifle us if you can, All Blacks warn England

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The Independent Online

The All Blacks have an answer for most of the things that crop up outside World Cup tournaments, so they were never likely to be struck dumb by English attempts to discombobulate them ahead of this weekend's opening autumn international at Twickenham. Steve Hansen, a key member of the New Zealanders' long-serving coaching triumvirate, was the man charged with poking holes in red-rose claims about the candy-floss nature of the sport in the southern hemisphere, and he did it with considerable relish.

Asked if he thought Mike Ford, the England defence strategist, had been indulging in mind games when he poured scorn on the high scoring rates in recent Tri-Nations matches, Hansen responded: "No, I think he was being honest. What England want is an arm-wrestle. I think they would be happy to go from set-piece to set-piece to set-piece, to take us on in that area and see if they can beat us.

"That has to be the assumption from what has happened in the past. We can't back away from it, but it doesn't stop us playing our own style of rugby and asking different questions of them.

"We can say: 'OK, we'll play your part of the game, but you have to play our part of the game too.' They're no more predictable than us, because we are very predictable in how we play. We want to move the ball, to use the talent and the athletes we have. They are just maximising the talent and the athletes they have." Ouch. There were so many barbs in that little sermon, Hansen could have made a wire fence out of them.

While the tourists lost their 2010 unbeaten record in Hong Kong last weekend, they are hardly laying awake worrying that England will breach their defence the way Australia did. Rather, they expect Martin Johnson's side to play a direct, deeply physical style of rugby that has little to do with the rapier and everything to do with the bludgeon.

"It's still possible to stifle a game," Hansen continued, clearly expecting England to do an awful lot of stifling. "What has changed is our own skill set. Our ability to cope with a kicking game has improved dramatically. Now, we're taking the ball and doing something with it. We can say: 'Keep kicking it to us, and we'll run it back at you.'"

And what about the theory, as articulated by Ford, that southern hemisphere rugby is less intense than the game in Europe? "Having been involved at Test level in both hemispheres, I just don't relate to people saying there is no intensity in the Tri-Nations," replied the former Wales coach.

"You have the three best sides in the world in that competition. What separates us is pace. In the south, we want to play a faster game. In the north, with the exception of France and Wales, it's more about in-your-face contact. That doesn't make it any more intense. It just makes it different."

Not that the New Zealanders are backward in coming forward when it gets to the dockyard brawl aspect of the sport. "Rugby is like life," Hansen said. "If you allow yourself to be intimidated, you go through life meekly and don't achieve the things you want to achieve. What you say is: 'I'm not going to be intimidated.' Standing up to physicality is huge, so yes, we can mix and match our game. You don't become the No 1 side in the world if you have only one bullet in the gun."

Meanwhile, the fleet-footed Wallabies are likely to be performing in poor weather when they take on Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, even though the Millennium Stadium comes with a roof. Wales generally favour dry conditions and often play their Tests indoors, but on this occasion they fancy a downpour might cramp the Australians' style. "I'll discuss it with the senior players," said Warren Gatland, the Wales coach. "Maybe we'll keep it open and hope it pours."

Australia, still on a Hong Kong high, indicated that they did not give the proverbial tinker's. But the International Rugby Board might take an interest if they consider this naked exercise in Welsh self-interest to be beyond the pale.

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