The month from hell: All Blacks, Pumas and Springboks pose frightening test

Wilting Red Roses and beleaguered coach need time to regroup - England face a brutal ordeal
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The Independent Online

If it was just a one-off to mark the opening of the South Stand and the arrival at Twickenham of 82,000 spectators, it would still be a potent cocktail. Throw the World Cup into the mix and it is a case of light the blue touchpaper and await the pyrotechnics. The problem for England, following five defeats in a row, is that they need a match of this magnitude today like Guy Fawkes needed a hole in his keg.

It almost goes without saying that the head coach, Andy Robinson, and his players are talking a good game, but talk is cheap. The All Blacks are on a mission and England appear to be in no fit state, mentally or physically, to stop them. As a cele-bration of an investment of £105 million, today's match between the world champions and the world No 1 team seemed like a good idea at the time - before England slumped in the Six Nations and crashed in Australia.

Since then they have been bedevilled by injuries and riven by the political infighting between the Rugby Football Union and the clubs. They were at it again last week, when Leicester's rubbishing of the Union brought a stern rebuke. And Leicester supply five-eighths of the England pack who offer them the best chance of giving New Zealand a run for their money at Twickenham today.

"It promises to be a celebration of innovative design and first-rate construction," Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, said, "showcased by two great rugby nations." The first bit sounded like an endorsement of Kiwi rugby. This is the match, remember, that threatened all sorts of mayhem at HQ.

The RFU made the All Blacks an offer they couldn't refuse - at least £1m - but then came the really difficult part. They managed to persuade Network Rail to rearrange their engineering work for the day. They also got live coverage on BBC1. What they had not bargained for was the attitude of Premier Rugby, who said the clubs would not release the players for a fourth autumn international. They took the matter to the High Court, which kicked out all Premier Rugby's claims, refused them leave to appeal and awarded the RFU costs. The clubs, who said the match would take place only over their dead bodies, described it the other day as a "fantastic occasion and a wonderful celebration of rugby". This was after accepting £1m in cash from the RFU instead of a balance of cash and a share of commercial rights.

So Baron is rubbing his hands at the prospect of a record crowd and receipts. He had another reason to be proud: rugby was named a national icon, joining fish and chips, the Mini, the white cliffs of Dover, a pint of beer and Robin Hood, even though the latter did not see eye to eye with the barons of this world.

Amid all the excitement, aren't they forgetting there's an iceberg out there? New Zealand do not have to wage power struggles and they have what England do not, centrally contracted players who, by and large, are fresh and contented - the Leicester Five have just waged battles with Northampton, Munster and Cardiff. But it is in the backs where England look out of their depth. What a baptism for the three new caps, Shaun Perry, Anthony Allen and Paul Sackey.

Whereas England have been forced to experiment, the Blacks back division look lethal, with try-scorers from No 9 to 15. Supplying them with the ball has been the key to New Zealand's re-emergence, with the forwards coach, Steve Hansen, transforming a powder-puff unit into a substantial eight. "England like a very physical game, they'll be in our face and we have to cope with it," Hansen said.

The front five look up to it, but the inclusion in the back row of Reuben Thorne and Chris Masoe, both coming back from injury, leaves two impressions. One is that, deep down, New Zealand see the two Tests in France as a more serious threat; they play in Lyon and Paris over the next two Saturdays. If all goes to plan they could meet the French in the final of the World Cup in Paris next October.

The other impression is that England's homework has been torn up by the omission of Jerry "The Hitman" Collins and Rodney So'oialo. Explaining why Martin Corry, who plays No 8 for his club, was at No 6 and Pat Sanderson, who plays flanker for his club, was at No 8, Andy Robinson foresaw "one-on-one battles" with Collins and So'oialo. That was, of course, before the All Blacks announced their team. England's selection had no bearing on that of the tourists, who said they had picked their XV before leaving Auckland.

"We will use as many players as possible in the first two Tests before picking our best 22," said Graham Henry. The coach, who was accused of being arrogant by the Lions management last year before New Zealand strolled through the series 3-0, has been around long enough not to dwell on England's troubles. Was he using the Twickenham Test as a warm-up for France? "Not at all. England are quality opposition so we've put a strong team out. We've always struggled at Twickenham because England are a pretty good side. They'll rise to the occasion. They're playing a different style and running the ball a lot more." This was based on England's performances in Australia in the summer, when they lost 34-3 and 43-18.

Henry's policy of establishing, in effect, a two-team system keeps his players fresher and less prone to injury. He tried to argue that the torrid start to the season for England's elite players was cancelled out by the fact that his squad had spent 26 hours in the air. He did not mention that they flew business class with one of their sponsors, Air New Zealand, and that the beds were very comfortable indeed.

"Our goal is to win Test matches and develop players and we've achieved both, but the nature of the beast is that we have to keep on winning," he said. Hopefully we're getting better."

Robinson, Henry's counterpart, also made a beastly equation. "My players are competitive animals who are turned on by winning. Everybody is passionate about performing well and we believe we're going to win this game. We know what we have to do. I've seen teams lose to New Zealand, and just by looking at their body language they didn't stand a chance. We've identified areas in which we can attack them and there'll be no holding back. We're going for it. It's time to be patriotic."

On this day of all days England can ill afford another saturated squib, but it will be a huge surprise if they can hold a candle to these All Blacks. And there is no let-up. On Saturday, Argentina pose a major threat - in June they lost only 25-19 to New Zealand - after which there are two Tests against the Springboks. Pass the smelling salts.



15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 A Allen (Gloucester)

11 B Cohen (Northampton)

10 C Hodgson (Sale)

9 S Perry (Bristol)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 G Chuter (Leicester)

3 J White (Leicester)

4 D Grewcock (Bath)

5 B Kay (Leicester)

6 M Corry (Leicester, capt)

8 P Sanderson (Worcester)

7 L Moody (Leicester)


16 L Mears (Bath),

17 S Turner (Sale)

18 C Jones (Sale),

19 M Lund (Sale)

20 P Richards (Gloucester)

21 A Goode (Leicester),

22 M van Gisbergen (Wasps)

New Zealand

15 M Muliaina (Waikato)

14 R Gear (Tasman)

13 M Nonu (Wellington)

12 A Mauger (Canterbury)

11 J Rokocoko (Auckland)

10 D Carter (Canterbury)

9 B Kelleher (Waikato)

1 T Woodcock (North Harbour)

2 K Mealamu (Auckland)

3 C Hayman (Otago)

4 C Jack (Tasman)

5 K Robinson (Otago)

6 R Thorne (Canterbury)

8 C Masoe (Wellington)

7 R McCaw (Canterbury, capt)

Replacements: 16 A Hore (Taranaki)

17 J Afoa (Auckland)

18 C Dermody (Southland)

19 R So'oialo (Wellington)

20 A Ellis (Canterbury)

21 L MacDonald (Canterbury)

22 S Sivivatu (Waikato)

Referee: J Jutge (France)

Kick-off: 3.30pm

Live: BBC1

Reasons To Fear: What makes the All Blacks all-conquering

1. The Coaching

Three wise men, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, have put New Zealand back on top of the world rankings - with some assistance from Wales and England. Henry's CV was enriched when he coached Wales through good times and bad and then Hansen followed suit, while Northampton have not been the same since Smith left them.

2. Daniel Carter

When Smith was offered the job of coaching the All Blacks backs he did not need much persuading. At first five-eighth, or stand-off, is a young man blessed with all the gifts: pace, balance, vision, a sidestep, outstanding temperament. Carter is also a quality goalkicker. The Kiwis have had some decent No 10s, but he is in a different class.

3. The Kiwi Set-up

The New Zealand Rugby Union have just announced that 75 leading players have signed contracts with them up to and beyond the World Cup. They are offered guaranteed retainers, and the goal of the provincial unions and the franchises is to "make New Zealand the best place in the world to play rugby". None of that club v country nonsense.

4. The Haka

Charming old Maori folk song or sinister war dance that infuriates the opposition and gives the All Blacks a head start? There are now two versions, the traditional Ka Mate, which is not unique to the All Blacks, and Kapa O Pango ("team in black"), which is. That ends with the players drawing a finger across the jugular, the universal sign for throat-slitting.

Tim Glover