Mehrtens: England rugby side still No 1 enemy

ANDREW MEHRTENS
Last updated 10:50 27/05/2014
All Blacks
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OLD ENEMIES: All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith in action against England last year.

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OPINION: I once described the English as ''pricks to lose to'' and at the time I hadn't even lost a test to them. But that was the sort of feeling they used to engender in the All Blacks.

In my day England were the one team we hated to lose to, and it was a powerful motivator. It was also a big reason we had such a good record against them.

Though things are different now, I'm sure that mindset hasn't changed too much as we prepare for a three-test series against a team we shouldn't forget was the last to defeat the All Blacks.

When I came into the All Blacks in 1995 a lot of that feeling was generated from guys who had been in England in 1993 when we lost 15-9.

It was very clear they held a grudge about that defeat and it definitely fuelled us before the World Cup semifinal in Cape Town.

We didn't hate their players - far from it - but it came down to how the guys felt treated after that loss in 1993.

There was definitely a feeling among the All Blacks who played that day that there had been an element of putting the colonials back in their place.

That came more from external forces around the team, than from within, but it didn't alter the perception.

In New Zealand, rugby is the game for the people, whereas in the UK it's very much a game for the ''elite''.

That runs against our New Zealand ethos. We see ourselves as egalitarian, and anything that smacks of class distinction we bridle at.

I'm sure there was also some misunderstanding. When we see that old brigade - the old farts, as Will Carling called them - straight away there's a perception they view us as lower-class citizens.

Whether it was right or not, in the past there was this very intense feeling it was the masters having righted the balance against the colonials.

That never sat right with us because for the last 120-odd years rugby is one of the ways we've established our national identity.

Thankfully, England's victories have been few and far between, pretty much once a decade if you consider they beat us in 1973, '83, '93 and 2003.

It's hard not to think 'bugger, you guys should feel it's the exception, not the rule'.

Eventually experience taught me there were good guys in English rugby, as in all teams, and I've forged some very good friendships with men who once wore the red rose.

It's a bit like the Auckland thing in New Zealand. You grow up in Canterbury detesting Auckland, but some of the best guys I've met in rugby are Aucklanders.

You always want to test yourself against the big boys, and in an international context, if you're a New Zealander, that's England.

But things are changing, and you only need look at the Polynesian influence in English rugby now to realise that. That's about the fluidity of the world, and about rugby growing as a global sport.

I see the name Vunipola featuring in English rugby now and I don't know if they're from the stock of farming Vunipolas in Lancashire. Perceptions are funny things I guess.

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In 1999 we turned up at the World Cup in this flash plane painted black, with players' faces emblazoned on the side, and it was probably no wonder other nations reacted the way they did to us losing. They probably thought we were pretty arrogant.

I really enjoyed my two years in England with Harlequins. They're good people - they've just got a lot more history, and a class element in society that's been around for a long time.

There should be genuine respect for the English this tour. Their back play in recent years has gone to a new level and there's genuine depth in their game too.

I'm also not sure they'll be as weak for the first test as some suggest.  A lot of established international players will still be here for Eden Park and that first group will have everything to play for which makes them dangerous.

Then for the second week, when the finalists come in from Northampton and Saracens, those players will have points to prove as well.

On the other hand, the All Blacks are building well. Over the last month a lot of our top players have lifted their levels. Locks and the back three look areas of strength and both centres are in great form.

There's also a great opportunity now to give Beauden Barrett his first start at No 10. His goalkicking has been excellent, he picks his moments well and is playing with confidence and excitement.

He's really challenging Aaron Cruden. Let's remember too there's another guy in the background who has just a little bit of potential. A guy called Carter.

- Stuff

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