Depleted England should not be taken lightly
The English are here. Well, some of them anyway. Marc Hinton gathers All Black greats Jeff Wilson and Andrew Mehrtens to help set the scene for the June tests.
Marc Hinton: Guys, between you, you played 15 tests against England and only lost once apiece. Let's get things rolling by talking about your abiding memories of playing them as an All Black? Jeff Wilson: The abiding memory is being desperate not to lose, like no other game you've ever played. I suppose that comes back to my second-ever test being at Twickenham against England [in 1993] and coming up short. England has always almost talked themselves up to the point of being one of the great sides, and always found a way from time to time to beat us. My most vivid memory is Jonah in the world cup semifinal in '95, because it was just an absolute demolition. That was one of the more satisfying test matches I played.
Andrew Mehrtens: That ['95 semifinal] was my first time playing England. I remember the guys who had been exposed to that experience in ‘93 were still pretty scarred by it. It had a profound effect, the way they were treated after the game - especially from the media and all the Alicadoos over there who think they just put one up the colonials. That buildup was pretty intense for the semifinal in Cape Town and then it just exploded. Jonah scored four tries and that was amazing to be part of, but everyone had good games. Twenty minutes in and Zinzan Brooke slots a drop-goal from 40 metres. I remember standing alongside him thinking ‘I'm dreaming here, this is ridiculous'.
What about this tour, and the absence of the Premiership final players for the first test. Brian Moore has called it a farce, Sir Clive Woodward says it's the biggest cockup since the ‘98 ‘Tour from Hell' he presided over. Do we have a legit series or a tainted one?
JW: We're certainly going to find out about their depth. Has the tour been tarnished? You'd have say to a point, because we're not going to see the strongest English side for the first test. But we are going to get a fair idea of how good they'll be next year covering for injuries and things like that. With their strongest team they have a core group of pretty useful young guys and the timing will be right for next year's world cup. We'll see that in tests two and three.
AM: It's part of a bigger malaise. The international game needs to take precedence and the rest of rugby structured around that. Not having a clear window is ridiculous. The English haven't got too many players who would make a world XV, but they have solid depth in all positions. Take No 10, where Owen Farrell has made the position his own, they've got Toby Flood floating around back home, and Danny Cipriani has come back. These guys who play in the first test have got a lot to play for and it will be a genuine English team in all three tests.
We've seen England more than competitive in their last two tests against the All Blacks. But can they reproduce that intensity and execution in this part of the world?
AM: We're seeing the globalisation of rugby, with a lot of knowledge from this part of the world now exported to all points north. You don't see a distinct French or British style any more, and the English are showing more ability to identify space and work the ball towards it. There are some form players who will miss the first test, but these other guys have a chance to stake a claim and will give it absolutely everything. Then they'll get similar urgency from the guys coming in for the second test. It could lead to an exciting series.
JW: The one thing that always travels, Mehrts, is their confidence. They'll come here believing, they'll know the All Blacks aren't always at their best first up. They'll back themselves to have a decent crack but I can't see them playing an expansive game. Also, let's not forget, they're at the end of really long season. That's where bringing such a large squad and having a second wave of personnel coming in could keep them a little fresher.
Let's switch focus to the All Blacks. If you're Steve Hansen how on earth do you improve on 14-0? What's June about for the world's No 1 team?
AM: They're at the top of the game and there's only one way you can go from there. What you focus on is performance, making it ever cleaner, more efficient, more enjoyable to play, staying ahead of the pack, and being innovative without changing your basics that have worked well. The All Blacks are very good at keeping everything simple - their execution is phenomenally high but the simplicity of their game also stands out. There a chance now to allow some new guys to develop and there are always challenges in terms of reacting to what the opposition presents.
JW: It's about innovation and continuing to tweak their game. Last year we saw little things they did to adjust their game plan, and I'd expect more of that. And of course there's the re-introduction of Jerome Kaino, understanding where he fits given we are a year or so out from the world cup. There's plenty to play for - some young guys want to affirm themselves as All Blacks, and some older heads are looking to show they're going be up to it in 15 months' time.
What about No 10? It's such an important position and with no Dan Carter how important are the next three weeks for Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden?
JW: It will be interesting to see who gets first crack. They've got great confidence in the guys there, and have the luxury of Colin Slade sitting in behind. It's whether Barrett gets the opportunity to overtake Cruden who has been good for the All Blacks but has missed a bit of rugby this year. Can Barrett step up and start a test at 10 and manage his way against a difficult opponent? I'll be surprised if he doesn't get a crack but he needs to grasp it with two hands.
AM: Cruden has been the understudy to Dan Carter, though when he plays I think we see him as a test No 10 in his own right which is testament to what he's done in the black jersey. Now, though he's still a young man, he's the senior pro with a tyro champing at his heels. How he deals with that will be interesting. First five is such a confidence position, to see the number of guys playing with confidence is fantastic for New Zealand rugby. It's also exciting to see Barrett ready to start his first test at 10 - there could be a battle for years to come between these three if you include Slade in the mix.
Any problem positions, any areas of concern for Hansen?
JW: Hooker has to be a concern. We know about Keven Mealamu's injury concerns, so it's a matter of developing someone in behind Dane Coles. It's also a big season for Sam Cane and whether he can again step up to the plate. Last year his performances were fantastic, but he hasn't been as dominant for the Chiefs, so can he put his hand up again? And who is the backup is for Kieran Read? Is it Kaino or Victor Vito? Also, if we lost Conrad Smith would they go to Malakai Fekitoa?
AM: There's a huge challenge ahead for the All Black tight five. The English are big and technically very good at the set phase, so it will be all about achieving that quality ball, but also providing a platform so the back three can do their thing. We've got tremendous depth at lock, I'm not so worried there, but the big challenge is for that front row.
What about some of the new faces - should they be unleashed in this series, or kept on ice?
JW: I think he'll take every opportunity from now until the world cup. One of the strengths in 2011 was depth. If Hansen wants to find out about these guys he has to get them out there. As much as we love the streak and want to continue winning, there's a fine line between making sure you're successful and continuing to build towards that world cup.
AM: I agree. The cup is the focus now, and you've got guys performing with confidence in Super Rugby. You've got to reward those guys, and say to a Malakai Fekitoa, ‘you might not be in the starting XV if the world cup final was tomorrow, but, gee, you've played well and we're going to back you against quality opposition'. It's funny hearing Jeff talk about depth. You don't say rotation any more, but depth got us through in 2011, and in 2007 the Springboks used rotation well so they had guys peaking at the right time. Blaming the ‘07 loss on rotation was wrong. Now we talk about depth, opportunity and rewarding performance.
OK, in a nutshell, what to we want to see from the All Blacks, and give us a prediction?
JW: I would like to see some blooding of new players, and I'm all about them continuing to grow their game and seeing some subtle differences that will take them through to success next year. I think it will be 3-0, we're all expecting that, but what I expect is by the third test England will be ready to have a real crack at us.
AM: Of course I want to see 3-0 but for rugby it wouldn't be a bad thing if it was 2-1 and we get to a series decider on June 21. I'd like to see that energy and enjoyment we've seen in Super Rugby come through in the All Blacks. I know the result is all-important, but these guys have performed on the back of being excited, having a crack and backing themselves. I hope that flows through.
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