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The Breakdown | New Zealand face a discernible sense of nervousness before England visit
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The Breakdown | New Zealand face a discernible sense of nervousness before England visit

Every incoming visitor’s first instinct upon arriving in New Zealand on Monday morning was to ask: “Where is it?” The fog over large chunks of the country was thick enough to ground many domestic flights, threatening to delay the bleary-eyed UK-based reporters heading down to the South Island for the All Blacks’ first squad announcement. The only thing currently less clear, say the locals, is the immediate outlook for their national rugby side.

Not for a couple of decades, the greybeards reckon, has there been less certainty around the All Blacks, as they prepare to return to the Test match fray next month. They have not played since last October’s Rugby World Cup final and are missing a Who’s Who of familiar names. Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga are either retired or unavailable. Add in the arrival of a new head coach, Scott Robertson, and something even rarer then New Zealand’s endangered fairy tern hangs in the murky winter air: a discernible sense of Kiwi nervousness.

It was certainly highly instructive, in that regard, to walk through the drizzle to Christchurch’s Convention Centre – not far away from where Paul O’Connell crept up behind an unsuspecting Alastair Campbell at a team announcement press conference in 2005 and yanked down the former spin doctor’s tracksuit bottoms – and witness the unveiling of Robertson’s determinedly unflashy new captain, Scott Barrett.

Neither the coaches nor Barrett could have been any friendlier or more welcoming to their two overseas guests but, equally, there was a definite first-day-at-big-school vibe. While Robertson is globally renowned for his break-dancing celebrations after his sides win trophies, the All Black job comes with a whole other layer of pressure. It is only when you find yourself in the full glare of the arc lights, with your inaugural squad being announced live on national television, that the sheer weight of responsibility really kicks in.

The theory was that the appointment of the charismatic Robertson would make the inevitable post-World Cup rebuilding phase a relatively smooth and, therefore, less stressful period. His record with the Crusaders has been remarkable, with seven consecutive Super Rugby titles between 2017 and 2023. The snag is that the serial winners have fallen away spectacularly since he left last year, rather undermining the cosy notion Robertson could just whistle up a trusty core of Crusaders and be pretty much guaranteed a winning All Black team.

And talking to a number of those involved in some capacity it was hard not to conclude that England really do have a real window of opportunity in New Zealand. Partly it is a product of the limited preparation time that is restricting Robertson’s options. Partly it is that, in one or two areas, this is an All Blacks squad lacking its old bottomless depth. Above all, though, it is simply that their old aura is slowly being chipped away in a modern world where, as one All Black assistant coach conceded, there is almost nothing new under the tactical sun.

In addition England haven’t been this well-equipped in New Zealand since 2003, when they came to Wellington and won a memorable pre-World Cup Test with, at one point, just 13 players on the field. Whether it be the Tour of Hell in 1998, knackered bodies and red cards in 2004, off-field shenanigans in 2008, dwarf-tossing and ferry-jumping at the 2011 World Cup or a spot of cabin fever at the end of another endless season in 2014, England have not latterly covered themselves in anything resembling glory.

New Zealand leave with their silver medal after the Rugby World Cup final against South Africa.View image in fullscreen

Now, suddenly, they are in form, in the mood and in an excellent position to burst a few myths, as Ireland did in 2022. No one, to be clear, is suddenly suggesting New Zealand are a busted flush, merely that once-lofty reputations are now less of a protective shield. Think of Afghanistan beating Australia at the T20 World Cup on Sunday. Or the USA defeating Pakistan. Or Glasgow Warriors going to Loftus Versfeld and beating the Bulls at altitude, as happened in Saturday’s United Rugby Championship final. Base levels of fitness, organisation and skill have risen across modern professional sport and some supposedly bigger fish are being caught unawares.

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Cast the net a little wider and global sporting domination, with increasingly few exceptions, is growing harder to sustain. Opposition video analysts now have endless evidence around which to base their gameplans, as opposed to just crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. As Borthwick made clear before England’s departure from Tokyo, the days of England travelling to New Zealand as rank outsiders are gone.

Which is what makes this looming two-Test series so fascinating. Borthwick has met Robertson only once, when the pair met for a coffee in London in November 2022, but he already knows what makes these opponents tick. “The Blues won the Super Rugby final in tricky conditions at the weekend and I expect some of the physical confrontational style of the Blues pack to come into the New Zealand team. Then you look at the pace with which the Hurricanes play and the dynamism they have. And the Chiefs are tactically a very smart team. You’d imagine that’ll also be part of it.” Novice Test coaches, scant preparation time. Smart opposition coaches, iffy weather. No wonder so many Kiwis are uneasy about the next few weeks.

Source: theguardian.com