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England target breakdown as route to poll-defying win over All Blacks
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England target breakdown as route to poll-defying win over All Blacks

The pre-game polls on big match days in New Zealand seldom fluctuate too wildly. Traditionally the public are given just one available option on their local ballot papers and it invariably reads “All Blacks to win”. England have been able to buck the trend only twice, in 1973 and 2003, in a grand total of 15 attempts on Kiwi soil dating back to 1963. Keen students of political history, however, might already have spotted a common thread.

In September 1973, when England beat the All Blacks 16-10 in Auckland, the beleaguered Tory government of the day, led by Sir Edward Heath, was limping towards the exit. In 2003, a few weeks after England pulled off their famous 15-13 rearguard action in Wellington, Tony Blair became the longest continuously serving Labour prime minister.

Could it be, therefore, that Sir Keir Starmer’s elevation is a timely omen for Steve Borthwick’s squad? Even to hint at it on the eve of a Test series in these parts feels almost blasphemous. New Zealand is not the most fabled rugby nation in the world by accident and, new head coach or not, certain old habits die hard. The All Black team sheet still lists 14 of the matchday squad whose most recent Test was the 2023 World Cup final where, playing without their captain for almost an hour, they missed out by a point to South Africa.

As with the big waves pounding the sea wall in St Clair where the surf-loving Scott “Razor” Robertson likes to go for breakfast on Dunedin game days, it could just be that the All Blacks prove more power-laden than the forecasters think. Either way, however, there has been a refreshingly different dynamic at play on this tour which, barring a major plot twist, should ensure a cracking contest beneath the canopy roof of the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Because England, as their captain Jamie George made crystal clear following the team’s flight down from Auckland, are no longer the same olde England many Kiwis still perceive them to be. Win or lose, they have travelled down without much in the way of psychological baggage which, to their minds, effectively gives them a free shot at the most elusive tour prize of all.

And if England can maintain the attacking momentum they were developing in the latter stages of the Six Nations and bolt on the essential nuts and bolts of a solid set piece, strong defence and consistent discipline then anything becomes possible. George and co are firmly convinced their preparation has been as close to perfect as makes no difference. Time spent training in the heat of Tokyo, they say, has left the entire squad feeling as energised and battle-hardened as they have possibly ever been at this time of the year.

Compare and contrast with New Zealand, whose abbreviated buildup has been sub-optimal. Robertson has a clutch of smart lieutenants at his elbow, with forwards coach Jason Ryan having already tightened up the All Blacks’ front five, but no side can lose Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane, Richie Mo’unga and Will Jordan and claim to be wholly unaffected.

It gives England more of a genuine sniff, potentially, than they have had in ages. When Ireland beat the All Blacks in a three-Test series in New Zealand two years ago they were leading 23-7 at the Forsyth Barr entering the last couple of minutes. England also lost by just one point under Stuart Lancaster in 2014 and the fast, hard surface could well make for another relatively high-scoring thriller.

In that regard the ability of the respective half-back pairings to steer their side towards the right parts of the field will be critical, as will the efficacy of England’s blitz defence. Whether it be Damian McKenzie dinking little chips over the top or the acceleration of New Zealand’s outside-backs causing difficulties for England’s covering tacklers, the All Blacks still retain the ability to punish teams more ruthlessly than anyone else.

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Borthwick has also made a point of singling out the breakdown as a significant theatre of war, fully aware New Zealand will be out to steal turnovers and pressurise his scrum-half Alex Mitchell, thereby frustrating the visitors’ desire to play faster and denying Marcus Smith the oxygen of quick ball. When England claimed their historic first win in New Zealand 51 years ago it was their back-row of Andy Ripley, Tony Neary and John Watkins who set the tone and the modern trio of Ben Earl, Sam Underhill and Chandler Cunningham-South will have to be similarly influential.

As the Bath centre Ollie Lawrence also stressed following the final team run, the entire 23-man matchday squad will have no option but to front up with and – even more crucially – without the ball. “The main message has just been to back ourselves,” he emphasised, fully aware New Zealand have not been beaten in Auckland, the venue for next week’s second and final Test, since 1994. If they wish to reverse the tide of history, England will need to strike fast and early.

Source: theguardian.com