The Test series has been in the All Black safe since last weekend’s one-point victory in the South Island’s wintry depths, but the world champions have yet to shake themselves free of a determined challenge to their sense of superiority.
If England can find a way of winning today’s confrontation at the Waikato Stadium – their first international visit to the North Island’s third largest city – there is no telling how the future might unfold.
To stand any chance, they must avoid conceding points in a flurry. Time and again under Stuart Lancaster’s stewardship – against the Springboks in Johannesburg two years ago, against the French in Paris in February, against these opponents at Twickenham before Christmas – they have fallen apart, tactically and defensively, for just long enough to make life impossible for themselves. It happened again in Dunedin seven days ago, when they allowed New Zealand’s playmakers to run riot for 20 minutes at the start of the second half.
Over the long stretch of a great career in rugby league, Andy Farrell learnt all about the subtle shifts and changes of balance that decide matters in the international arena. That knowledge is priceless. “In rugby at the highest level, your opponents are going to have their purple patches,” said Lancaster’s second in command yesterday. “We’ve shown an ability to bring those purple patches to an end and find our way back into games, but we’ve allowed them to go on a little too long. When teams are smelling a weakness in us, we need to spot it early and react immediately.”
If England had done that in Dunedin, today’s match might have been a series decider. It is a highly significant game for both nations anyway.
Having lost both senior half-backs to injury at the start of the week – Danny Care’s shoulder problems and Owen Farrell’s strained knee ligaments were always likely to open the door for Ben Youngs and Freddie Burns – the tourists also saw Geoff Parling disappear off the teamsheet yesterday.
If neither Care nor Farrell was at the peak of his powers last time out, the Lions lock was, both as line-out organiser-in-chief and as an open-field tackler, where he was credited with more than 20 successful interventions.
While Parling’s twanged hamstring was not obvious at the time, it was to anyone who saw him hobbling off the midweek flight to Hamilton. England will miss his clarity and authority, but the misfortune at least gives Joe Launchbury an opportunity to reclaim some ground lost over the last couple of weeks.
Launchbury, a magnificent contributor through the autumn internationals and the Six Nations, looked tired in the opening Test in Auckland and was noticeably off his game in Dunedin, hence the initial decision to relegate him to the bench for this one. “He was gutted not to be in the starting line-up, but he knows the reasons,” Farrell said bluntly. “Now that he’s finished licking his wounds, I’m sure we’ll see him play with real hunger.”
The All Blacks are never less than ravenous. This vintage may be nearer the end of something than the start of it as Richie McCaw and Tony Woodcock begin to fall off their standards, but the warrior spirit will be the last of their virtues to fade away. As usual, they begin a game in front of their own as warm favourites and as usual only a fool would bet heavily against them. But England have a shot, just as they had in Dunedin. If they deliver the 80-minute performance Lancaster craves, rather than another 60-minute one, it could be very tight indeed.
England M Brown; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, K Eastmond, M Yarde; F Burns, B Youngs; J Marler, D Hartley, D Wilson, C Lawes, J Launchbury, T Wood, C Robshaw, B Vunipola. Replacements R Webber, M Mullan, K Brookes, D Attwood, B Morgan, L Dickson, D Cipriani, L Burrell.
New Zealand B Smith; C Jane, M Fekitoa, Ma’a Nonu, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith; T Woodcock, D Coles, O Franks, B Retallick, S Whitelock, J Kaino, R McCaw, K Read. Replacements K Mealamu, W Crockett, C Faumuina, P Tuipulotu, L Messam, TJ Perenara, B Barrett, R Crotty.