Brian Smith: New Zealand will not be underestimating this weakened squad – they haven't forgotten 2012
They will feel that England are one of the few sides who genuinely have their measure
Brian Smith, 64, is a retired Logistics Controller from Saltash, Cornwall. He lives with his wife Wray. In 2010, their son Richard, 30, and his housemate Kevin, 32, were found dead from Carbon Monoxide poisoning from their Beko-manufactured cooker.
Thursday 05 June 2014
So Brodie Retallick, the All Black lock from the South Island of New Zealand who has made a name for himself up north in Waikato, didn't manage to identify a single England player when asked to assess the threat posed by Stuart Lancaster's team in the three-Test series beginning at Eden Park on Saturday. Does that make him arrogant? Does it mean that the world champions regard these tourists as a soft touch and see no reason to waste time doing their homework? Not a chance. If you believe that, you'll believe anything.
Retallick has been playing his guts out for the Chiefs in Super XV – hard games, an even harder travel itinerary – and had barely had a moment to think about international matters. And let's face it: when the question was asked of him by some mischievous journalist or other – it's the oldest trick in the book, picking on a tight forward rather than someone a little sharper in the top four inches – he was probably as confused as the rest of us as to which England players were already in the country, who was flying out late and which ones were missing the tour altogether. Give the bloke a break, I say.
There isn't the faintest possibility of the All Blacks taking a relaxed approach to these Tests. The last two meetings, both at Twickenham, were highly competitive and while New Zealand capitalised on English errors in the final quarter to win in November, they are still hacked off at losing in 2012 – a defeat of record proportions, it should be remembered. They will feel that England are one of the few sides in the world who genuinely have their measure, and therefore pose a threat. And when the All Blacks sense a threat, they take things very seriously indeed.
The rest of the country may be talking in terms of a clean sweep for the home side but inside the All Black camp the tone will be completely different. They'll be talking about proving a point, especially as England are hosting next year's World Cup and show signs of building strongly for that tournament. Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, is always stressing the importance of "raising the bar" and, having seen his side go through 2013 unbeaten, he recognises the importance of starting the 2014 programme with a step up rather than a step down. Motivation is not an issue.
The ABs look ominous, even though they'll be opening for business without Kieran Read at No 8 and Julian Savea on the wing, and I hope for England's sake that Richie McCaw and company start slowly. If New Zealand are big points up by the interval, some of the second-string combinations forced upon the tourists by the messed-up fixture schedule could splinter and crack under the pressure. Tests at Eden Park, with its 20-year record of unbroken success for the locals, are daunting enough for visitors at full strength. Teams taking the field with one arm tied behind their backs have next to no chance.
It is a common assumption that in the June Test window the southern hemisphere nations are at their most vulnerable on the first weekend – that an inevitable lack of cohesion resulting from a six-month break from international rugby makes them ripe for the picking. There's a logic to the argument and reality has justified the theory on occasion, but I've also seen it work the other way. In 2010, a decent Ireland squad made the trip to New Zealand and were expected to be competitive in the first Test in New Plymouth. What happened? The All Blacks scored nine tries and 60-odd points, leaving their opponents to head out of town in search of some missing credibility.
If you're going to win in New Zealand, the great fortress of Eden Park is the place you most want to do it. Well, we can all dream. I played there on maybe half a dozen occasions, at a time when it was as much a cricket oval as a rugby ground. It was a tough place to visit then, and it's a whole lot tougher now that it's been redeveloped as a proper union stadium, fit for purpose as the country's sporting cathedral. The kickers often find life awkward when the wind blows – even Jonny Wilkinson considered it tricky to find his range there – and the weight of history is heavy indeed.
It's a crying shame that England must play this match at half-strength. Clashes between domestic finals up north and June Tests down south will continue unless the season is aligned across the hemispheres, which would involve changing European rugby's place in the calendar. This would have its advantages: summer rugby in the north would be played in better conditions, probably attract bigger crowds and benefit from a higher profile in the one part of the year when football is a little quieter.
There is more momentum behind the search for a solution to this issue now than there was a dozen years ago, but don't hold your breath. Change in rugby happens at a snail's pace.
Brian Smith is a former England attack coach and current director of rugby at London Irish
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