England have real chance to reverse rugby history against New Zealand (2024)

England coaches and players often say they don’t like looking back, but they are well aware that Saturday’s momentous task is to reverse rugby history – and are convinced that it can be done.

Why not? It has already happened, before this series against the All Blacks has even begun. The tourists are fit, ready, acclimatised, well prepared and confident, not weary, weakened, resigned and besieged.

It is a total contrast to so many previous visits to this far-off, forbidding enemy territory, where England have only ever won twice; in 1973 and 2003.

Compare the scenario now to the last time the national team were here a decade ago, when Stuart Lancaster was forced to leave a large contingent of his squad at home for the Premiership Final, due to a glaring, shambolic fixture clash.

The-then head coach assembled a mix-and-match line-up for the first Test, featuring a quiz-question pairing at 10 and 12 – Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond.

Steve Borthwick's men are better prepared than previous England sides touring New Zealand

Stuart Lancaster's men fell short in New Zealand 10 years ago after missing some key players

New Zealand also brought Clive Woodward's tenure to a grisly end in 2004

They were magnificent and England could and should have won. Instead, they were edged out at Eden Park, lost here in the far south by a point and then collapsed in Hamilton, to complete a 3-0 ‘Blackwash’.

Six years earlier, Rob Andrew had been in interim charge as England played two, lost two and were engulfed by off-field controversy. Further back, in 2004, without the retired Johnson to lead them, England were swept aside twice as Clive Woodward’s tenure came to a grisly end.

So, there is a novelty factor this time, as Steve Borthwick has presided over a smooth build-up, with a strong, upwardly-mobile squad awash with renewed belief, since their tactical overhaul during the Six Nations, followed by a 52-17 win over Japan in Tokyo two weeks ago. Not only that, what they have been greeted with here is oddly different.

All that Kiwi confidence of old is notably absent now – replaced by palpable doubt ahead of what the Otago Daily Times labelled a ‘banana skin fixture’. New All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson is feted as a successful visionary, but this is not Super Rugby with the Crusaders, where he was lord and master of all he surveyed. This is Test rugby; it is New Zealand and the pressure is on. Already.

Just a handful of days after coming together, having waited so long for his moment, the grand launch event is upon Robertson – and his new, under-prepared team. On Friday, the host union confirmed that Forsyth Barr Stadium had sold out, just in time, which meant it took a late push to fill the giant greenhouse’s 31,000 seats.

England played three and won three here in 2011, then lost by just a point to the All Blacks in the same futuristic indoor venue three years later. More recently, they have a win, a draw and a loss – also by just a point – in their last three encounters with New Zealand. All in all, few of the tourists were wearing any scars going into this latest battle.

It has been fascinating to gauge the mood in these parts and realise that the old superiority complex has gone. The last time a European team toured here, two years ago, Ireland came back from a 1-0 deficit to secure a momentous 2-1 series victory. That upset may have stripped away the sense of invincibility in the Kiwi psyche when faced by northern raiders, who were routinely derided and defeated in the past.

New Zealand are lacking their usual confidence as they start a new era under Scott Robertson

Sevu Reece (pictured) claimed New Zealand don't know the names of their English counterparts, which should only serve to motivate England

Recalled All Blacks wing Sevu Reece dropped another ‘we don’t know their names’ clanger on Thursday, which adds an extra dimension to English motivation, but there was no shortage of it already. They know the context. They know it is a fast-track to oval-ball folklore if they win here.

And they can win here. The recent tactical liberation means there is a broader repertoire now. In a direct contest, Borthwick’s side can still hit hard, led by the likes of George Martin, Sam Underhill and Chandler Cunningham-South. But there is razzle-dazzle further out too, if Marcus Smith can once again release fliers such as the devastating Exeter prodigy, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso. If the locals don’t know that name yet, they will soon enough.

One visiting player who is widely known is Maro Itoje. Much rests on his ability to scale the heights again in a country where some of his career peaks have occurred.

Ten years ago, the Saracens lock led England U20s to junior World Cup glory in Auckland. In 2017, he was a mainstay of the Lions’ epic series draw against the All Blacks and in Yokohama in 2019, he was imperious again as England beat these rivals in a World Cup semi-final which was arguably their finest hour.

Time and again, Itoje raises himself for the big games. This is a very big game. This is when England need him in dynamo mode; dominating like a World XV candidate once more.

His and his team-mates can catch New Zealand cold. The hosts have barely met. They have a new coaching regime, new systems, a new captain, a new No 10 and a new full-back. The likes of scrum-half TJ Perenara, Reece and Stephen Perofeta haven’t played a Test for two years. There is no Aaron Smith now, no Richie Mo’unga, no Sam Whitelock, no Brodie Retallick, no Will Jordan.

No aura? It has certainly diminished. But of course, the innate Kiwi pedigree remains. Even if they lack collective cohesion, the All Blacks will have a vast array of individual talent. Their catch-pass skills – especially in confined spaces – remain the envy of the oval-ball world. Their decision-making under pressure is also supreme, but they can be harassed into unravelling; see replays of that epic Yokohama game for details.

England have an exciting back line, including Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, that can hurt All Blacks

They also have big-game player Maro Itoje (pictured), who will need to be at his very best

Borthwick knows his team have a real chance to beat New Zealand and create history

England will unleash another blitz masterminded by Felix Jones, believing they can rattle McKenzie and Perofeta under the greenhouse roof, providing the visitors gain parity up front. But that is not assured.

Since the arrival of Jason Ryan as forwards coach, New Zealand’s pack has been formidable. Twenty-one years after the famous ‘white orcs on steroids’ win in Wellington, England must ensure they don’t overlook their staples, in the quest for attacking nirvana, or they will be blown away.

No Borthwick team will ignore the core building blocks and the most senior of his self-styled ‘old farts’, Dan Cole, is primed to add set-piece ballast after the break, in alliance with Quins’ promising prop star, Fin Baxter, on debut. England also have Tom Curry straining at the leash on the bench, and his introduction should provide a timely bounce effect.

In this place of English suffering over the decades, the evident hope and belief in the Red Rose ranks has amounted to so much more than hollow, wishful thinking. On previous trips here, gallant failure would have been tolerated or even quietly celebrated, but not this time. Borthwick’s men were going in with eyes wide open. What a chance to reverse history.

England have real chance to reverse rugby history against New Zealand (2024)


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