There should be no additional reason for locals to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day this Sunday, as the All Blacks look set to record their fourth straight win over England.
The Poms have suffered a wretched pre-season run of injuries, and the side that turns out against the New Zealanders sees several new faces. Three backline debutants in Paul Sackey (wing), Anthony Allen (centre) and Shaun Perry (scrumhalf) will line up against an experienced and prolific All Black outfit. On paper, things look like they could get ugly for England, but the Twickenham factor should ensure that the scoreline remains respectable.
ON THE FLY
Ever since Jonny Wilkinson succumbed to his first injury after the 2003 World Cup, Charlie Hodgson has made the England No 10 shirt his own. His personal record at Twickenham has played a significant role in the ground becoming something of a fortress, where a win for visitors is no regular occurence. If the England pack manage to upset their All Black counterparts, expect to see Hodgson controlling the match. His accurate goal-kicking should get England close as well.
Nick Evans’s return to the All Blacks side is still pending due to a relentless hamstring injury, but should he play, this will present a fantastic opportunity for Graham Henry to see what other options he has at flyhalf. Evans has enjoyed a good season with Otago this year, and many people on the South Island are dying for him to get another chance at international level.
Having Aaron Mauger on his outside will help his re-adjustment to the big time, but the fact remains that an attacking backline is only as good as its flyhalf. That’s why this game is so vital for Evans, as it gives him the chance to show Henry why he should displace Luke McAllister as Daniel Carter’s back-up. Getting the likes of Joe Rokocoko and Rico Gear on the scoresheet will go a long way towards claiming the position of Carter’s understudy.
CONTROLLING THE PACE
Weather reports prescribe a faster game than expected, with sunny skies and dry conditions forecasted for Sunday afternoon. Henry’s decision to include both Richie McCaw and Chris Masoe in the back row may hence be vindicated, as the two opensiders will be looking to run the Poms ragged, and the drier weather will suit them to a tee.
England captain Martin Corry, Lewis Moody and Pat Sanderson will conversely work at slowing the ball down as much as possible, and limiting the quality of possession being dealt out to New Zealand’s lethal backs. Applying the pressure to Evans and scrumhalf Byron Kellerher will be crucial to disrupting the All Blacks rhythm. If the second string halfback pairing is jolted, the All Blacks will find themselves on the back foot. The Springboks have tried to place similar pressure on the Kiwi midfield in recent times, and have enjoyed mixed success.
The New Zealanders have highlighted the problems in the line-out as something that they will be looking to fix on this tour. Keith Robinson and Chris Jack are tasked with providing the attacking platform for the Blacks, while blindsider Reuben Thorne will also offer another good option in the set piece. Much of the home side’s hopes in this area centre around Danny Grewcock, as Ben Kay is struggling with a leg injury that may yet prevent him from playing this game.
A great contest is anticipated in the front row, with the world’s best props Carl Hayman and Tony Woodcock scrumming against England’s Andrew Sheridan and Julian White. The latter two are among the stronger scrummagers in world rugby, and although the All Blacks should gain the ascendancy upfront, they will be made to sweat for it.
The All Blacks by 10 or more. Playing at home should inspire a brave effort from England, but in the end, New Zealand will prove too strong yet again. The outcome will largely depend on who sets the pace, and with the visiting side having the advantage in the forwards, a gambling man would do well to put his money on Black.
England: 15 Iain Balshaw, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Jamie Noon, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Shaun Perry, 8 Pat Sanderson, 7 Lewis Moody, 6 Martin Corry (c), 5 Ben Kay, 4 Danny Grewcock, 3 Julian White, 2 George Chuter, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Stuart Turner, 18 Chris Jones, 19 Magnus Lund, 20 Peter Richards, 21 Andy Goode, 22 Mark Van Gisbergen.
New Zealand: 15 Malili Muliaina, 14 Rico Gear, 13 Ma’a Nonu, 12 Aaron Mauger, 11 Joe Rokocoko, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Byron Kelleher, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Reuben Thorne, 5 Keith Robinson, 4 Chris Jack, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 John Afoa, 18 Clark Dermody, 19 Rodney So’oialo, 20 Andrew Ellis, 21 Dan Carter, 22 Sitiveni Sivivatu.