England can't match All Blacks intensity - Fitzpatrick
WHEN analysing why New Zealand are the dominant force in the world game -- their defeat by Australia last weekend notwithstanding -- some factors stand out.
Their individual technical excellence and brilliance come to mind, as well as their immersion from an early age in the culture and aura of being an All Black in a country for which rugby provides a window on to the world.
But there is another element, which former captain Sean Fitzpatrick alluded to yesterday: that they are effectively an international club side.
In most years now, partly owing to economic necessity, partly because of the way the sport is developing with an expanded Tri Nations, New Zealand play 15 internationals a season. Including build-up and preparation periods, that equates to at least 30 weeks a year together. The regime breeds familiarity; it fosters spirit.
It is a situation that England manager Martin Johnson yearns for. England may play 11 or 12 matches annually, but the Premiership clubs remain the ultimate employer.
Three matches may not seem much, but it is 25pc more international rugby and when margins between winning and losing can be small, that makes a difference.
"I have been trying to work out why southern hemisphere rugby has been so dominant over the past year or so," said Fitzpatrick. "It is due to the intensity.
"The All Blacks are playing 15 Tests a year. The players week in, week out are exposed to the type of rugby you can only experience at Test level. The All Blacks have such an advantage -- it is their club, their team. They live and breathe All Black rugby."
The New Zealand scenario, as painted by Fitzpatrick, puts Saturday's rivals England on the back foot before the clash at Twickenham.
The legendary hooker, who lives in London, is forging a career as a television pundit and helping to promote business links between the UK and New Zealand around the 2011 World Cup in his homeland. He believes that the game in England is moving in the right direction, with increased fitness and skill levels a by-product of the way in which rugby is developing. "But, as we saw in Hong Kong (against Australia last weekend), the intensity is something that guys who have not faced the All Blacks will not have experienced. Will they cope?" Fitzpatrick said.
He noted the comments of England defence coach Mike Ford, who predicted an "old-fashioned" encounter and said that more tries should not be the barometer by which the game is judged.
Fitzpatrick countered: "They may want an arm-wrestle, but it will be an arm-wrestle over 80 minutes at a speed and intensity which will make it difficult for England to slow the game and break up the All Blacks' pattern." (© The Times, London)