28 Nov

Match Preview: England v All Blacks
by Tracey Nelson
28 Nov 2008

The All Blacks are just one win away from attaining only their third ever Grand Slam on this end of year tour to Hong Kong and the UK. While achieving a Grand Slam is perhaps not the same accomplishment it was in 1978 , nonetheless this current tour is perhaps more noteworthy than the Grand Slam achieved in 2005. This time round the end of year tour has involved five consecutive test matches (thanks to the fourth Bledisloe test in Hong Kong) along with a slug-fest mid-week game against Irish side Munster – and this time round we have seen an end to the contentious rotation of the test side.

Before this tour started, Graham Henry stated that there was no way an All Black could play five consecutive test matches on ‘what will be the most demanding Test match tour schedule faced by an All Blacks team in the professional era. Yet this weekend we will see Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu front up to play their fifth consecutive test (Mealamu didn’t start in Hong Kong but came on within the first 10 minutes of the game to replace Andrew Hore), while Joe Rokocoko backs up for his fourth test but fifth game in the space of four weeks, and Ma’a Nonu plays his fourth test in a row.

Meanwhile the likes of Muliaina, Sivivatu, Carter, Cown, So’oialo, Kaino, McCaw, Thorn, Tialata and Woodcock will all be starting in their third consecutive test match. I see this as both testimont to the passion these players have for the black jersey and recognition by the coaching staff that not only can these players front up to the demands of test rugby week in and week out but their game has actually improved by doing so.

By fielding the same side (with the exception of centre) against Ireland and Wales, and with the make-up of the first choice forward pack pretty much settled since the latter games of the Tri-Nations, we have seen this All Black side gel in a way that was never evident during the doomed campaign for the RWC in 2007. But the litmus test will be this weekend, when the All Blacks take on a wounded England side at Twickenham, and we find out whether five consecutive test matches is indeed one too many in the new professional era.

England will be out to regain some pride after the humiliating record defeat they suffered on their home turf last week to the World Cup Champions South Africa. A loss in this test will see them slip below fourth in the IRB world rankings which in turn will see them lose seeding status for the draw for the 2011 World Cup on December 1st. The odds of this happening look slim, with the All Blacks going into this match as firm favourites on the back of seven consecutive test wins (the last six of which were all on the road) whilst England have fallen to Australia and South Africa on home turf in the last fortnight.

The luckless Danny Cipriani has been dropped to the bench and Toby Flood will be in the number 10 jersey marking up against Dan Carter who has scored an astounding 120 points against England in six test he’s played against them. Ricky Flutey, an ex Wellingtonian now playing for England will be matching up against the in-form Ma’a Nonu, while Michael Lipman has the dubious honour of taking over at openside flanker to mark Richie McCaw.

Chances are that England manager Martin Johnson will get his side to return to it’s 10-man rugby roots, a style of game more suited to the players they currently have available. England have looked good employing the pick and go with their pack but have run into problems when they have attempted to play the running/offload game, turning over possession regularly and not scrambling well enough in defence against the counter attack. One can only imagine the carnage that may result should such a scenario unfold against the All Blacks.

However, even in defeat there could be a small victory for England. So far on this end of year tour, the All Blacks have not conceded any points in the second half of their tests nor have they conceded any tries against Scotland, Wales or Ireland. To score a try against New Zealand would certainly be a small ray of light in what has so far been an abject season for England. And for the All Blacks, one can only imagine that to concede a try to England even while beating them would almost make a Grand Slam a failure.

ALL BLACKS: Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Rodney So’oialo, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Ali Williams, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Hikawera Elliot, John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Kieran Read, Piri Weepu, Stephen Donald, Isaia Toeava.

ENGLAND: Delon Armitage, Paul Sackey, Jamie Noon, Riki Flutey, Ugo Monye, Toby Flood, Danny Care, Tim Payne, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Steve Borthwick, Nick Kennedy, James Haskell, Michael Lipman, Nick Easter.
Reserves: Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Tom Croft, Tom Rees, Harry Ellis, Danny Cipriani, Dan Hipkiss.

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