I’ll be honest about this: it was not until I started coaching New Zealanders – or to be strictly accurate, New Zealand rugby players – that I stopped hating them. Growing up in Australia, with the cross-Tasman rivalry uppermost in the minds of everyone who loved the union game, they were always the enemy. When I first played against them as a schoolkid, beating them was the most important thing in the universe. That feeling stayed with me for decades.
And as we’re being honest, we might as well admit it: we hate them because they’re so bloody good. By way of emphasising the point, the All Blacks who play at Twickenham this afternoon are as close to unbeatable as any team I’ve seen. Yes, there were some grand claims being made about New Zealand when they were here last year, and England ended up beating them by a record score. But the Kiwis have moved up a notch since then and for Stuart Lancaster’s team to summon a repeat performance virtually everything will have to go their way. More than anything, they’ll have to catch the tourists on a very rare bad day.
You’d have to be a pretty dedicated optimist to think that will happen, given the background to the game. These All Blacks are gunning for England: they didn’t like losing last year, they didn’t like the way they lost and they didn’t like the way the English celebrated the victory. If what we’re hearing from inside the New Zealand camp is correct, this is definitely a revenge mission.
It’s not that I don’t think England have it in them to perform well. When you go up against the All Blacks, you always find something extra inside yourself: another yard of pace, another level of concentration and commitment. I played for Ireland against Wayne Shelford’s side in Dublin in 1989 – the day our captain, Willie Anderson, came up with the bright idea of invading their space during the haka – and I well remember the surge of electricity I felt flowing through my veins. The fireworks before kick-off cranked me up even further.
Why did Willie do it? We’d seen teams in Wales turn their backs on the haka, even retreat to their own posts in the hope it would go away. Fat chance. Shelford, a serious hard-case even by New Zealand back-row standards, simply followed his opponents down the field and performed the ritual war dance under their noses. Willie decided we should do the opposite and it certainly had the effect of raising the temperature, although I can’t say I was upset to be on the periphery of the intrusion, being a mere outside-half. Believe me, it feels a lot safer watching the footage on YouTube!
There’s no point sugar-coating it: without Manu Tuilagi, who really made a difference for them last year, and Marland Yarde, not to mention their two leading loose-head props, England will be under the gun. The injuries must have left doubts in their minds and, from what I’ve seen of them over the first two autumn fixtures, I don’t think they can score more than 20 points. As a consequence, it will all come down to the quality of the English defence… which is where things get complicated.
To contain these All Blacks, you not only have to dominate them at the scrum and disrupt them at the line-out, you also have to control their possession as well as your own – control which New Zealander has the ball, when he has it and where he has it. That’s a tough ask over an 80-minute stretch, but it’s the only way of shutting down their brilliant counter-attacking game and minimising the number of man-on-man contests, where they’re head and shoulders above the rest.
If there is a crumb of comfort for England, it’s the fact New Zealand don’t like Twickenham, which tends not to be a happy hunting ground for their kickers, Dan Carter included. I think this goes back to 1999, when they crumbled against France in the World Cup semi-final. I was there to see it and it was one of the best days of my life. Why? Because Australia had already qualified for the final and we knew the French could not raise themselves to that level twice in a week.
And also, I have to admit, because the All Blacks took a thumping. It doesn’t happen often.
Brian Smith is director of rugby at London Irish and a former England attack coachReuse content