England hunt for redemption against ABs
It's not just the All Blacks who are unsure what to expect from England this weekend.
Opinion is divided whether the northern hemisphere nearly-men are on the cusp of a breakthrough, or coached by a man who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a losing streak with nowhere to turn.
Those arguing the ship is about to sink point to a woeful record against the southern superpowers since Stuart Lancaster's permanent appointment.
England have lost four of their last six matches. Their sole victory during that time came over Fiji.
"Ultimately the overriding emotion is frustration," Lancaster admitted yesterday.
Crushing public pressure culminated in last week's one-point loss to the Springboks when inexperienced captain Chris Robshaw, who succeeded Lewis Moody after one test cap earlier this year, botched a chance to relieve collective tensions.
Robshaw's decision to kick a penalty with his side four points behind and two minutes on the clock was widely, and rightly, ridiculed.
"We think it's unfair that he's been held responsible for the loss," Lancaster said. "Games are won and lost on more than one decision."
Under this theory, Lancaster's men have no hope of beating the All Blacks for the first time in nine years.
Back in 2003, when Ma'a Nonu made his test debut at centre in Wellington, England last tasted success against the now world champions. Martin Johnson captained the visitors that evening, before his ill-fated coaching tenure, to a gritty 15-13 win despite two yellow cards.
It's been even longer since England last won at Twickenham (2002) against the All Blacks. The prospect of ending that decade-long drought was dented further by the withdrawal of preferred first five-eighth Toby Flood with a toe injury. Owen Farrell, son of defence coach Andy, is likely to start in Flood's place.
There is, however, evidence to suggest the outlook may not be as gloomy as London's grim weather.
Closer scrutiny shows Lancaster's cleaning out of the old guard - after last year's shambolic World Cup campaign - and his attempts to instil a fresh culture and attacking mindset could be working.
As interim coach, Lancaster led a young side to four victories from five matches, including a win over France in Paris, during the Six Nations. And had England displayed more composure in the past two weeks against the Wallabies and Boks they would be in a contrasting position.
Lancaster's overall record isn't bleak; five wins, five losses and one draw might paint a truer picture. But in a country where football managers are sacked faster than the winter sun sets, patience is an absent commodity.
Though England had a long-term vision when they eventually appointed Lancaster through to the next World Cup, another loss to the All Blacks would spark calls for a review. The pitchforks are being sharpened.
On the face of it the All Blacks couldn't have struck the Red Rose at a better time. Assistant coach Ian Foster knows better.
"It's a dangerous time," he said. "There's no better way for redemption than to go and knock over a top team when you've had a couple of losses. Between that and their youth there's a sense of adventure that comes into their game."
Indeed, men like powerful centre Manu Tuilagi emphasise England's gradual move toward a more explosive, expansive style to complement their physical forward pack.
Before the European tour there was a school of thought Wales would be the All Blacks' toughest test. Now, there appears little doubt the final hurdle requires their highest leap.
"You respect them for what they've achieved but they are beatable," Lancaster said of the All Blacks. "Sides have shown if you're competitive in certain areas you can pressure them."