Tuesday 24 October 2017

England won't stand on ceremony

Mick Cleary

On an afternoon when they need to invoke the shock sporting spirit of a Buster Douglas as he overpowered Mike Tyson, England have at least scored one minor victory in not making a song and dance about New Zealand's renowned song and dance, the haka.

"We'll have done our emotional bit in the changing-room," Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, said. "It's time for cool heads out there. Of course the crowd will rise to it, our players too, for it is a significant cultural ritual. But it's a day for clear decision-making."

That much is true. But, as Lancaster hints, there is also a need to ruffle the All Blacks, to knock them out of their stride as Argentina did for one half during the Rugby Championship or France in the World Cup final, blasting away at the breakdown, mobbing their runners to prevent dangerous offloads.

Many, of course, have tried similar tactics, futilely setting an ambush as if New Zealand had never suspected that an opponent might try to knock the living daylights out of them. The trick is not in deception but execution.

England have to be ferocious but also subtle. They also have to be accurate. Their line-out was a mess against South Africa, five of their own throws going awry.

England, of course, cannot swoon in the face of All Black prowess. It is all very well stating that you will not be overawed by the silver fern and power-dressing black garb, but the simple fact is that New Zealand are not a figment of a PR machine, they are the best in the business, rugby players with fierceness in their souls and magic in their feet.

England, then, have to be as they were against the Springboks, only more so. "You need to step up your game 10 to 15pc at international level," Lancaster said. "Against the All Blacks, it's 20pc."

Tom Youngs, the hooker, needs to correct his wonkiness, find the rhythm that gave him a perfect line-out return against Fiji and Australia. Dan Cole has to lead the charge in the scrummage, willing on Alex Corbisiero on the other side to put in a full shift. Any frailty and New Zealand will pounce.

In the rush to acclaim the feats of Dan Carter and his chums, it is often overlooked that even an All Blacks backline would struggle if it had little or poor ball with which to play. The New Zealand forwards set the tone, with Richie McCaw and No 8 Kieran Read to the fore.

For all the stick that Chris Robshaw has received for his muddle-headedness, no one has cause to question his contribution as a loose forward. He will match McCaw stride for stride, ruck for ruck, with flanker Tom Wood alongside. If they can prosper, England have a chance. Much is needed, too, in that England back-row from Ben Morgan.

And then what? Do England have an attack that can cause tremors? Or will they be as stilted and stunted as they have appeared at times?

Much rests on Owen Farrell. He has attracted undue scorn for being named as one of the International Rugby Board's four nominations for Player of the Year. Farrell is tough as nails and has no better stage on which to show that his early-year form was no fluke. Up against the peerless Carter, Farrell will have to implore the gods to think benignly of him. Precision, potency, penetration – that is the wish-list for the England backline.

"It is vital we don't make the errors in attack as we did last week," skills coach Mike Catt said. "If you watch the Wales-New Zealand game, that is where New Zealand really took advantage."

The All Blacks are savvy as well as sharp. They build a score, exploit weakness, kick for territory and then plunder. They are unbeaten in 16 months but they are not unbeatable. These All Blacks are special. England have no intention of paying homage. The rest of us can.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

England – A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, M Brown; O Farrell, B Youngs; A Corbisiero, T Youngs, D Cole, J Launchbury, G Parling, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan. Reps: D Paice, D Wilson, M Vunipola, C Lawes, J Haskell, D Care, F Burns, J Joseph.

New Zealand – I Dagg; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; D Carter, A Smith; T Woodcock, K Mealamu, O Franks, B Retallick, S Whitelock, L Messam, R McCaw (capt), K Read. Reps: D Coles, W Crockett, C Faumuina, L Romano, V Vito, P Weepu, A Cruden, B Smith.

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