New Zealand 20 – England 15
Well what a performance from an, on paper, weakened England side.
There’s no doubting that the All Blacks will come back stronger next week, with the intention of showing that their near hiccough against a resolute England second string was just that, however this is an England side in resurgence, with a strength in depth usually associated with their illustrious hosts. In years gone by the All Blacks have had a near conveyor belt of talent to draw from, when there was an injury there was an instant replacement, but, as noted by one of the top sports writers recently, they no longer carry the swagger which has served them so well since winning the 2011 world cup. The All Black aura is splintering. The mythology would suggest that the famed black shirt does things to an opponent long before the first whistle has blown.
The symbolism of the haka, its tribal nature, its warrior spirit, is designed to strike fear into those standing across the halfway line, daring them to accept the Maori challenge.
So many teams have been beaten before they even take the field against New Zealand, whatever vestiges of confidence they had in their own ability eroded by the history, as well as a fair degree of hokum, that is associated with the All Blacks. It is a slick trick, hustling for an advantage. And they have been rumbled.
England may have lost in Auckland on Saturday night but it was clear to everyone at Eden Park that these supposed second-stringers cared not a fig for the reputations of the world champion side. England were raw and inexperienced in several positions. In years past, we would have expected to see a 20 or 30 point defeat. Certainly that has been the case on so many summer tours to the southern hemisphere, particularly to New Zealand. The Poms turn up. The Poms get pummelled. It has been a long-running production.
But two can play the heritage game. England have picked up the schtick, instilled a sense of togetherness and belonging that matches the traditional tight-knit nature of the All Black group. We may have doubted England. They did not doubt themselves. From the moment backs coach Andy Farrell revved them up in the pre-match huddle, reminded them that a white shirt can be every bit as resonant as a black shirt, England played with zest and self-belief. They were not over-awed. They were not intimidated. And they matched the All Blacks stride for stride.
The “coincidence” of the Premiership final absentees’ late arrival has provided Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team with a rather unique opportunity to see how players in the, supposed, lower orders can cope at the very highest level. They will glean more from watching them in this one game than ten in a Saxons jersey, and, result aside, be extremely satisfied that their strategy is well and truly on track.
This weekend will see inevitable changes, but one thing that Lancaster has shown is that he will not allow his judgement to be impaired by reputation.
He faces the toughest selection process of his England career across the board with fine-line calls to be made as to retaining line-out maestro Geoff Parling over the available Courtney Lawes, and likewise the impeccable set-piece return of Rob Webber has to be set against the claims of Lawes’s Northampton team-mate Dylan Hartley. Billy Vunipola is another who needs to press his credentials in training to reclaim the No 8 shirt from Ben Morgan, who had a fine game providing plenty of go forward in the loose.
The shuffling of contenders at centre and wing is likely, though, to use up most of the brain power of the England management. They know they have to get this right if the series is to go to the final week in Hamilton. They have a full roster from which to choose.
Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees has been declared fit after missing the first Test last Saturday with an ankle injury. Bath’s Kyle Eastmond delivered a performance of note in the 20-15 defeat, showing trickery in attack and solidity in defence. Brad Barritt is also in the frame as is one of the standout centres of the Six Nations campaign, Luther Burrell of Northampton.
So, as speculation grows as to the switching of Manu Tuilagi to the wing, the question is who will be better equipped to nullify a New Zealand mid field who will not be high on confidence on last Saturday’s showing.
England must start with the same intensity, and some, which they showed in the opening half last Saturday, anything less could be severely punished by an All Blacks side whose public will demand, and expect, nothing short of a drubbing of the visiting poms to put them in their place at Dunedin’s “House of pain”.
Meanwhile the rugby world will be watching with bated breath.