Richie McCaw wary of the 'familiar' England

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 07/06/2014
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Richie McCaw
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
DAB HAND: All Blacks captain Richie McCaw speaks to the media at Eden Park ahead of his side's clash with England.

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Richie McCaw wasn't interested in predictions or excuses.

Whether England's ill-prepared side is awful or adequate is the question hanging over the first test of a three-match series that will represent the first real brush strokes on the 2015 Rugby World Cup canvas.

Logic suggests an All Blacks side not dissimilar to the one which won 14 straight tests last year will be too good in Auckland tonight for opponents undoubtedly understrength and inexperienced in several key areas.

The loss of halfback Danny Care to a shoulder injury yesterday further eroded the chances of a massive upset with Ben Youngs in to complete an out-of-form halves pairing with Freddie Burns.

McCaw has heard it all before. He walked off Twickenham wondering what went wrong in 2012 and last year as a winner, but with another healthy dose of respect for Stuart Lancaster's side.

"You look at the last two years and it definitely is [an even match-up]," he said yesterday.

"We understand the challenge that's in front of us. All test footy is different to the level we've been at the last two or three months, and we have to make sure we're pretty quick getting up to speed with that."

England were a "settled" side with most of them "familiar" to the All Blacks, and McCaw said they had become more expansive since Lancaster took the coaching reins.

"They don't seem to have a real weakness, and across one to 15 they use the ball and look to exploit space," he said.

"Our job is not to give them too much, but they are good players across the park who have the ability to hurt you if they get it their way."

For all that, it is easy to pick holes in an England team sheet that looks strong in places but untested in others.

England's packs look capable and experienced. The front row is solid, Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury are quality locks and Ben Morgan, captain Chris Robshaw and James Haskell an impressive loose trio.

But if things look relatively even up front, the All Blacks must fancy their chances in the backs.

England are raw outside of centre Manu Tuilagi and fullback Mike Brown. Burns gets a rare start, while second five-eighth Kyle Eastmond gets his third cap in a lineup that features four players with fewer than seven tests to their name.

They face a vastly experienced All Blacks unit. Even without wing Julian Savea and the damaging presence of No 8 Kieran Read on the flanks, there are numerous threats.

Second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu will test Burns and Eastmond early, and if the defence folds, first five-eighth Aaron Cruden will create opportunities for Ben Smith and Cory Jane out wide.

The latter two provide an aerial double act, and it would surprise if Aaron Smith did not kick early to turn the English pack around before any efforts at a wide game.

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McCaw does not expect any first-test rust for a side that boasts 779 caps in the starting XV.

"That's [being rusty] a bit of an excuse. The reality is it's not going to be perfect because you have 15 guys trying to stop you, but accepting mistakes just because you say you haven't played together for a while? That's just not the standard you need to be at playing for the All Blacks."

Lancaster's England don't look like a squad that will roll over with or without the cast of stars who will watch from the stands after their late arrival.

"I wouldn't say it's daunting," backs coach Andy Farrell said.

"If you go to Twickenham it's full of 82,000 people every game. There's a lot of pressure games we've played there. We've played some in South Africa as well."

True, but they may struggle to stay to the end in this match. Their bench has just 49 caps between them, and while there are three new caps in TJ Perenara, Patrick Tuipulotu and Malakai Fekitoa in the All Blacks reserves, the final 20 minutes could be telling.

If England are on the ropes by then, the running games of Perenara, Fekitoa and Beauden Barrett could be too much for a side that will be at shorter odds next week.

- Stuff

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