Stuart Lancaster has just made some big calls on some big players – after England's courageous effort in the first Test, the "Dear John" discussions must have been even more difficult than usual – and they don't come much bigger than Manu Tuilagi, a world-class outside centre who suddenly finds himself on the right wing. This is a back-line plot long in the hatching and I can understand the reasons behind the experiment, but I'm not sure I'd have been in any rush to perform this particular trick in a must-win game against a side as dangerous as the All Blacks. To adapt the age-old saying: "If it ain't broke, don't shift him."
For the first time in years, England are cast as hunters and New Zealand are the ones being stalked. Speaking as an Australian who coached England for a while, it's fun to watch: things are not so rosy in the Shaky Isles right now, what with last week's scare at Eden Park, some very famous individuals – Ma'a Nonu and Richie McCaw among them – slipping off their standard and the much-vaunted "Baby Blacks" struggling in the Junior World Cup. So this is a prime moment for someone to roll them. If England can do it this weekend, and maybe even again in Hamilton in the last Test, the Wallabies will take a hell of a lot of encouragement from it ahead of the Rugby Championship. The same goes for the Springboks.
As England were so impressive in midfield last weekend – I thought they outplayed New Zealand in that area – does the relocation of Tuilagi help the cause, or hinder it? I'd have left him where he was, but that's me. Stuart will have thought this one through and gone out of his way to cover off a lot of the potential pitfalls in training. England are well coached, the staff work hard on addressing perceived deficiencies and they have the courage of their convictions. Package all that together and it could work.
But whenever you have a big, strong wing who is great on the front foot, there tends to be a flip side of vulnerability on the back foot. I think Manu will be helped by the "sweeper" skills of Mike Brown at full-back, but the New Zealanders are an astute bunch: they'll give him plenty of attention through their punting – a box kick here, a high ball there, a raking cross kick to get him on the turn somewhere else. Of all the teams in Test rugby, the All Blacks and the Wallabies are the best at taking a surgical knife to their opponents and slicing them open.
Last weekend at Eden Park, the New Zealanders went wide pretty quickly: it was one of the reasons why Freddie Burns (who I thought played exceptionally well in tough personal circumstances) and Kyle Eastmond weren't pinpointed and threatened as much as anticipated. If repeated in Dunedin, that immediate search for width will be challenging for Manu as he finds himself making decisions of the split-second variety. In attack, I'm sure he'll be fine: I can see England bringing him in off the blind-side wing and running him off Danny Care at scrum-half. In defence? That will be the test, mentally as much as physically.
If I'm honest, I thought last weekend's game was a poor one: exciting enough in the dramatic sense, but full of the kind of basic errors that drive coaches nuts. (My Saturday morning was saved by Australia, who would have beaten anyone in the world with the seven-try performance they produced against France). I could understand the teams being rusty at this point in the calendar – especially the All Blacks, who were coming off a six-month break – but the issue in Auckland was one of individual skills, and with the amount of Super XV rugby being played, the New Zealanders could hardly claim to be out of practice.
I reckon they have some problems down there, hence the rumours that there are some big-name players with starting positions on the line. Israel Dagg at full-back? He looked unpickable at Eden Park. The centres? Outplayed by an untried England combination. There are a couple of others, including McCaw, who need to show that age is not catching up with them.
Given the standard of the New Zealand performance, there must have been some mixed feelings in the England camp: a lot of relief at the fact that they got their preparation right and found a way to make a real contest of it with a weakened side, combined with a sense of frustration that, given a kinder bounce of the ball, they could easily have left town with a result. But they've given themselves a foothold in the series and they go to Dunedin with momentum and belief.
It could be an important day for the sport – maybe a Roger Bannister moment. When the four-minute mile barrier was finally broken, the world of athletics seemed full of fresh possibilities. If New Zealand are turned over on home soil, the feeling in rugby will be the same.
Brian Smith is a former England coach and currently director of rugby at London Irish. His fee for this article will be donated to the club's academyReuse content