Red Roses hope to be thorns for All Blacks

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 07/06/2014
Youtube/Stuff.co.nz

A compilation of battles between the All Blacks and England on the rugby field.

Stuart Lancaster
Getty Images
BIG CHALLENGE: Missing his best players for the opening test with the All Blacks, England coach Stuart Lancaster just wants to get on with the task ahead.

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England's transition will be put to the test tonight.

All week we have heard about the strides the tourists have made under coach Stuart Lancaster - his All Blacks counterpart, Steve Hansen, says the Red Roses are the most-improved international team over the past 18 months.

Still, most-improved is one of those accolades that suggests you have come a long way but have not yet made the grade. It is certainly not in the most-consistent or team-of-the-year bracket.

Thankfully, Lancaster's regime has moved to eradicate the off-field antics, to embrace a more attacking mindset, to bring some egos down a peg or two and to mould a squad who now genuinely believe they can compete with the world's best. South Africa are the only team England have not beaten in the past two years. The visitors are also the sole side to defeat the All Blacks in their previous 35 tests. That alone deserves respect.

But they are a heavily depleted team - due to disastrous scheduling - and weakened further by the loss of 47-test halfback Danny Care to a shoulder injury.

Having been so severely compromised, in this first test at least, there is little doubt they are rank outsiders. Passion may help Lancaster's men hold their own for 40 minutes but can they remain resolute for the full 80?

"The people who don't give us a chance don't understand the journey we've been on so far," England assistant coach Andy Farrell said, defiantly.

"For the last two years we've been getting better fairly rapidly. We've been in a lot of big games, taken on a lot of challenges and have come out pretty well."

With 480 fewer caps than their counterparts, the English will need every ounce of belief when the black wave hits them at fortress Eden Park, where no All Blacks team have lost for more than 20 years.

"The belief doesn't just come from the win against New Zealand [in 2012], it comes from a continuous improvement along the way," Farrell said.

"Not just that game either, the second game they beat us in was a great contest. We've held no fear.

"We don't seem frightened of going to these places and giving it a good crack.

"We respect and appreciate what Eden Park means to New Zealand rugby and we're aware of the record there but it's about playing in the moment.

"We know we've only won twice here and only beaten the All Blacks seven times. We're aware of the history but we're more aware of our own history of late."

Farrell bristled when questioned whether the visitors would cope with the speed Hansen's men have adopted since claiming the World Cup on home soil.

"We want to play with pace, you don't need to worry about that," he said.

Rather than mirror a similar up-tempo style, though, England would do well to focus more on their forward pack's efforts.

In the last two battles royale at Twickenham, aggression in this department laid the platform to rattle the All Blacks.

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Slow the ruck ball, accumulate points and pressure Aaron Smith's delivery; that is the blueprint. The longer the visitors are in this test, the more their belief will grow and, ultimately, the more dangerous they will become. 

- Stuff

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