Hinton: ABs-England ought to be mismatch
It is time for some rugby reality, and not the tosh that's been spouted most of this week. The All Blacks should win this season-opening test at Eden Park by the length of the straight. Anything less will represent some serious under-achievement.
That's not to disrespect England who, according to no less an authority than Steve Hansen, are the world's most improved rugby side over the last few seasons.
The Irish might argue with that contention, but there's no doubt they've made some great strides under the personable, and capable, Stuart Lancaster.
They're also playing a much more expansive brand of rugby - hear, hear to that - and have introduced a new generation of players to a programme that was in dire need of regeneration.
Even us cynical lot from New Zealand, bred to regard anything the Poms do in rugby with a massive dollop of suspicion, have been won over by a team that has rattled the All Black cage twice in succession at Twickenham.
But this week isn't about two rugby superpowers matching up at their best - as it was the previous two Novembers.
It's about an alarmingly under-strength English outfit, decimated by injuries and defections, dragging their tired carcasses to New Zealand at the end of their long and gruelling season.
It's about one team with the odds stacked against them going up against a disciplined, talented, highly motivated group of All Blacks intent on carving their place in history.
If it's not a mismatch, frankly, something will be amiss.
All the talk this week has been about how much respect the All Blacks have for England - fair enough, too - and about how this touring outfit are still a legitimate test side despite the massive cast of characters missing in action, which grew by one today when halfback Danny Care cried off with a shoulder injury.
But with all due respect to the protagonists this week, it's nothing but rugbyspeak - pre-determined claptrap that's more about not giving ammo to the opposition and building up the occasion, than it is telling it how it is.
The reality is an All Blacks lineup pretty close to full strength - they cover for the losses of two such influential figures as Kieran Read and Julian Savea better than anybody on this planet - should make mincemeat of a piecemeal English outfit.
The rust factor may prevent this being the blowout it should. The All Blacks, whistled straight up out of Super Rugby campaigns that are ongoing, almost always take a week or two to find their feet.
But even that should not prevent a decisive New Zealand victory tomorrow against a side featuring just seven players who started their last test.
England have 16 players who came in late and weren't available for the series opener, and around a half-dozen front-liners who have all been waylaid by injury, or personal issues.
You might get away with that sort of an MIA list against Italy or Scotland, but sorry, that is not going to cut the mustard against the world's best team.
Plus, this is a motivated All Blacks group. The World Cup is on the radar and Hansen has developed some pretty handy internal competition to keep his men on their toes.
Jerome Kaino, who starts at No 8 in Read's absence, is pushing hard to break Liam Messam's stranglehold on the No 6 jersey.
When Savea returns, the All Blacks will have four world-class back-three merchants; Beauden Barrett is breathing down the neck of Aaron Cruden; Dane Coles has been challenged to lay down a marker as the top hooker ahead of Keven Mealamu; Owen Franks is under pressure from Charlie Faumuina. I could go on.
Then there's the numbers game. These All Blacks are motivated by history and carving their place in it. A glance at their team whiteboard confirms that.
After winning all 14 tests last year they are again ready to challenge the world's best win streak; they haven't lost at Eden Park in two decades; and they are about to cross off the best run of home victories the game has seen.
They won't say it, but these things matter to them.
England B, missing a who's who of talent, should be nothing more than a speed bump on a night all about damage limitation for the tourists.
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