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It was a salty Polish-
Australian named Stan Pilecki who best caught the singularity of New Zealand’s rugby team, commenting: “You don’t leave much doubt about your game plan when you play in All Black.”
The New Zealand All Black heritage underpins one of those inversions of geopolitics in which rugby union specialises. Germany, the United States and Japan are loveable underdogs – to the extent that the people of Townsville in Australia cheered the Japanese in their World Cup tie against Fiji, which has roughly one hundredth Japan’s population and one twelve-hundredth its gross national product.
New Zealand – a non-nuclear South Pacific archipelago, population 4m, beloved of green-minded tourists – is, by contrast, the game’s ruthless imperial superpower. It is a standing built up over more than a century during which the All Blacks have won about three-quarters of their international matches. For much of the time, they intimidated through a grim, austere physicality, often justifying a secondary designation as “unsmiling giants”.
Rarely can they have looked scarier than they will to reigning world champions England at Twickenham on Sunday. The method, though, has changed. Where previous generations used to grind opponents into submission, the modern All Blacks threaten a different humiliation. This does not mean they can be trifled with physically but England’s worry is far more of being made to look slow, ham-fisted and unimaginative as a dashing back division
runs complex, lethally-quick patterns around them.
Sunday’s match is outside the usual three-week programme of international matches played in Europe during November. It is being staged to celebrate the opening of the new South Stand at Twickenham, replacing a structure itself less than two decades old and increasing the all-seat ground’s capacity to 82,000. No doubt those seats will be sold on Sunday and for every England match in the foreseeable future, creating Europe’s largest rugby union crowds since the mammoth, all-standing terraces at Scotland’s Murrayfield ground – occupied by an estimated 104,000 for the visit of Wales in 1975 – were replaced by seating.
England coach Andy Robinson could, though, be forgiven for wishing that the Rugby Football Union had settled for some more restrained celebration – a ribbon-cutting, perhaps. Having the All Blacks drop by out of turn just now is a bit like the Vikings pitching up on the shores of 10th-
century Northumberland just as the locals were preoccupied by a political crisis and an epidemic of swine fever.
England’s disarray was summed up when wing Paul Sackey was called up to replace the injured Mark Cueto this week. Sackey is a decent player who has forced his way into consideration as the most consistent try-scorer in the Guinness Premiership. But he brings the number of players who have started for England in the space of five international matches to 38.
Of course, international coaches use more players than they used to. There are more matches and the aim is to build squads in which every first-choice player is backed by at least one international-quality alternative. Experimentation is never livelier than in the final year before a World Cup. There is, though, a difference between fine-tuning and desperate churning. There is little doubt which applies to England. Each of their other two debutants – Bristol scrum-half Shaun Perry and Gloucester centre Anthony Allen – will be the fourth different player tried in his position in those five matches.
Which is not to say that there is any objection to fielding debutants against the All Blacks. A dozen years ago, Kyran Bracken, also a scrum-half, made his first appearance for England in a victory over New Zealand. Indeed, each of England’s four previous victories over the All Blacks at Twickenham has featured international novices. Alexander Obolensky, a Russian-born winger, ran himself into rugby immortality with two tries in England’s 13-0 win in 1936. Those who were there in 1983 remember Bath flanker Paul Simpson as much for his loving-every-moment grin as a rampagingly effective performance. England’s win four years ago was also the beginning of Gloucester wing James Simpson-Daniel’s sadly stop-start international career.
Too bad for Perry that rugby achievements are unlikely ever to impress Hollywood since his meteoric rise, well into his late 20s, from welder to England scrum-half in the space of 18 months is the stuff of which sports movies are made. He’ll hope to answer the demands of playing against New Zealand more fluently than he responded to questions at the post-selection press conference, when he turned to a Twickenham press officer for prompting when asked his opinion of the All Blacks. But, if momentarily stumped on that occasion, he is hardly inarticulate – the terminally tongue-tied rarely have vocabularies incorporating “hypothetical” or “surreal”. His selection is on resounding merit and the additional responsibility of vice-captaincy shows that England’s coaching team expect him to handle this fresh elevation with the maturity and aplomb he has brought to every other challenge since he joined Bristol at the start of last season.
England are reportedly offended that New Zealand will not be fielding their strongest team, seeing it as an affront to their status as world champions. But that trophy was won almost three years ago. England have not played like champions at any time since – finishing in the bottom half of the European Six Nations championship for the past two seasons and losing their past five matches. No international coach will demand that his best combination play four weekends running, particularly at the end of a long southern hemisphere season. France, New Zealand’s opponents over the next two weekends and hosts for next year’s tournament, look more demanding opposition. So might Wales be when the All Blacks visit Cardiff on November 25.
If New Zealand coach Graham Henry had really wanted to insult England, he would hardly have included his captain and best player, flanker Richie McCaw. Henry’s team have won 15 of his last 16 matches. No international rugby match, least of all one involving New Zealand, is trivial. But the All Blacks could win every match between now and mid-October next year and still be deemed failures unless they recapture the World Cup after a 20-year hiatus during which they have had to watch England, South Africa and – most galling of all – Australia (twice) take the Cup.
There is still fine tuning to be done. Thoughtful New Zealand observers suspect a weakness, or at least a lack of real depth, in the second row and fret about the team’s scrummaging. The entire country is painfully aware of the All Blacks’ counter-cyclical relationship with the World Cup – almost invariably all-conquering in the years between tournaments but vulnerable when the event comes around. Winning the trophy is the only possible form of exorcism and for Henry and his All Blacks the only match that truly matters will be played in Paris on October 20 next year. The rest is no more than rehearsal.