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England bolster starting XV as Dan Cole benched for first Test in New Zealand
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England bolster starting XV as Dan Cole benched for first Test in New Zealand

England have thrown down the gauntlet to the All Blacks by naming their team 48 hours early for Saturday’s pivotal first Test in Dunedin. The starting XV shows two changes, with props Joe Marler and Will Stuart both selected in the front row, while Harlequins’ Fin Baxter and Northampton’s Ollie Sleightholme are both in line to win their first caps off the bench.

Baxter and Sleightholme are joined among the replacements by Alex Coles and Ben Spencer, with Bevan Rodd, the suspended Charlie Ewels, Harry Randall and Tom Roebuck all dropping out of the matchday 23. The benched Dan Cole will win his 114th cap to equal Jason Leonard as England’s most capped male forward.

England head coach Steve Borthwick, however, has resisted any temptation to opt for a 6-2 forward bench split, having brought forward his team announcement by two days as he did before his side’s 52-17 victory over Japan in Tokyo last month.

As expected Marcus Smith has retained his place as starting fly-half for a fixture in which England hope to showcase the attacking progress they have been making in recent months. The touring side also contains seven of the matchday 23 who featured when they beat the All Blacks 19-7 in the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final.

While England have not won on New Zealand soil since 2003, they have a decent recent record elsewhere against this weekend’s opponents. In addition to the 2019 triumph in Yokohama, England held the All Blacks to a 25-25 draw in their last meeting at Twickenham in 2022. Skipper Jamie George and lock Maro Itoje also featured in the British & Irish Lions Test side which secured a 1-1 drawn series in 2017.

Borthwick said his players were ready to take on the All Blacks on their home turf. “It doesn’t get more challenging than playing New Zealand at home, but it’s exactly where we want to be,” he said. “We want to find out more about ourselves and test ourselves against one of the best teams in the world.

“Test rugby is a game of fine margins, so our mindset is going to be very important on Saturday. We’ll need to be mentally strong, play a tactically smart game and ensure we maintain our discipline. The Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin is a great venue with a quick surface, and the closed roof should make the atmosphere very special.”

New Zealand are not due to confirm their line-up until Thursday.

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England XV v New Zealand on Saturday: G Furbank; I Feyi-Waboso, H Slade, O Lawrence, T Freeman; M Smith, A Mitchell; J Marler, J George (capt), W Stuart, M Itoje, G Martin, C Cunningham-South, S Underhill, B Earl.

Replacements: T Dan, F Baxter, D Cole, A Coles, T Curry, B Spencer, F Smith, O Sleightholme.

Source: theguardian.com