Southern city all abuzz ahead of All Blacks test
MARC HINTON IN DUNEDIN
There's a buzz of anticipation around a fine but chilly Dunedin today.
Part of it's surrounding the anticipated response from the All Blacks, and part of it is generated by a growing respect for Stuart Lancaster's increasingly impressive England.
Steve Hansen remarked after last weekend's scratchy season-opening 20-15 victory by his men at Eden Park that the rugby constituency of New Zealand was perhaps "on the same page" as his All Blacks now.
"England aren't a bad side, and I've been trying to tell you that," he said.
That's apparent now.
Lancaster was missing over half his first-choice lineup last week, either through injury or the late arrival of the Premiership finalists, and they still put out an England team that had more than the measure of an off-key All Blacks side.
The bounce of the ball certainly didn't go their way, but at 15-15 with four minutes remaining they were poised to deliver one of the great upsets before Aaron Cruden's audacious tap, and a belated finish by Conrad Smith restored the true order.
Never mind that the All Blacks had played like chooks with their heads cut off. They rushed passes, dropped eminently catchable ball, kicked away a lot of possession and failed to mount anything resembling sustained pressure against an English defence that was willing, well organised and pretty effective.
The review was not kind to the All Blacks. Hansen was unequivocal in his condemnation of a display that was a long way short of the minimum standard he demands.
"If you turn round and say so and so shouldn't play because he played badly, we wouldn't have anyone on the park. That's how bad the performance was," he said on Thursday after unveiling a lineup featuring just one injury-enforced change. A fit-again Julian Savea was back on the left wing, a smarting Cory Jane returned to the right side and Ben Smith earning his first test start at fullback for the crocked Israel Dagg.
The coach nominated basic skills as the big work-on of the week.
"Our skillsets were very poor, probably the poorest they've ever been," he said, all too emphatically. It was a theme backed up by every member of the All Blacks squad wheeled before the media in Rugby City this week.
Yes, their pride had taken a battering; and, yes, a response was called for.
Just what shape the All Blacks' rejoinder takes tonight under the roof of the splendid Forsyth Barr Stadium is what intrigues most of the rugby folk gathered in the chilly south.
How much better can the world champions get in a week? Will they unleash the ball-in-hand brand of footy that is their hallmark when they're at their best?
Let's face it they will have no excuses. Under the roof, and in front of a sellout crowd of 28,500, conditions and atmosphere will be tailor-made.
With last week's imperfect victory universally accorded the status of a defeat, there is a lot to prove for a side that takes great pride in meeting the exacting standards of its public.
So what do we want from the All Blacks tonight?
A scrum to offer a steadier platform; quality lineout pill off the top; a more physical presence at the breakdown; a far greater emphasis on ball retention and building phases; more cut and thrust in the backline; wingers and fullbacks who back themselves to take the ball to deck; and a big increase in pace and tempo overall than was managed at Eden Park.
No pressure then, boys; just a serious step up in standards right across the board.
As Hansen touched on, it wasn't one or two All Blacks who were off the mark last week; the entire side, with the possible exception of Aaron Smith and Jerome Kaino, who celebrates his 50th cap tonight, did not do themselves justice.
The anticipation around Dunedin over what form this response might take is palpable.
Everyone is asking, "which All Black team do we see this week?"
The answer might be a little more complex than many figure. It might be about which All Black team England let them be.
The other side of last week's messy equation was that England did not let the world's No 1 side find any sort of rhythm. They were very combative up front, they hit hard in defence and carried with real intent and effect.
Manu Tuilagi, in particular, did a real number on the All Blacks, and Ben Morgan was so effective at No 8 the big metre-eater has kept the imposing Billy Vunipola on the bench.
That's the thing about this week. There's as much talk about the opposition as there is about the All Blacks. That's not a state of affairs you always get around the world's best team. I sense a real respect for an English outfit who are building some characteristics that are not a million miles from the All Blacks' own.
Lancaster is an uncomplicated Cumbrian who has restored discipline, order, pride and quality to a side that had degenerated badly under Martin Johnson's watch.
He has studied the best in the business and turned this England squad into a group lauded by the All Blacks as the most improved test side in the game over the last 18 months.
They have real depth, genuine options across the park, an unyielding physicality, monster ball-carriers who chew up the gain-line and a growing inclination to express themselves with ball in hand.
As I made my way round Dunedin last night - as you do on match's eve in the hospitable south - as many people wanted to know what was coming from England as they did the All Blacks.
That means we have ourselves a real test series. And, hopefully, something to truly savour tonight.
ALL BLACKS: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (capt), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Victor Vito, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.
ENGLAND: Mike Brown; Manu Tuilagi, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Marland Yarde, Owen Farrell, Danny Care; Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw (capt), Tom Wood, Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury, David Wilson, Rob Webber, Joe Marler. Reserves: Dylan Hartley, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns, Chris Ashton
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).
Which rugby player would you be most inclined to bend selection rules for?