England and New Zealand may not be among the world’s best at the moment but this contest rarely disappoints and it is set to be another humdinger at Twickenham on Saturday.
The All Blacks looked nowhere near a team that could challenge for the 2023 Rugby World Cup when they succumbed to Argentina in August – their first ever home defeat to Los Pumas – but have improved since then.
Six victories in a row, which has included a Rugby Championship title, has eased the pressure on head coach Ian Foster, while the nuts and bolts are starting to be put into place.
Jason Ryan has done a magnificent job up front, with the scrum, lineout, maul and breakdown much-improved, while the backline is more cohesive thanks to the input of Joe Schmidt.
You can certainly see Schmidt’s influence with their patterns of play and, as a result, they have become a more effective unit from one to 23.
Foster realises there is some way to go if they are to regain their spot as the best in the world, with France, Ireland and South Africa still that bit ahead – despite their 35-23 triumph over the Boks in Johannesburg.
At the moment, the All Blacks’ fundamentals aren’t quite at the level of those three teams and especially in a World Cup knockout match, that is what decides the contest, but they are ahead of Eddie Jones’ England.
The Red Rose have had a pretty abysmal year so far, summed up by their dreadful defeat to Argentina two weeks ago. Jones made his excuses following that game and, to their credit, there were improvements against Japan, but this is the match which will show whether the Red Rose are on the right track.
Set-piece-wise, a traditional strength of the English, there have been developments but the attack has yet to click into gear against any of the tier one nations. It very much needs to fire here otherwise New Zealand will walk away with a victory and put the Australian under further pressure.
Where the game will be won
For England, it will be about winning lineout ball, given the disparity in jumpers between the two teams (more on that later), and then finding some fluency in attack. They are starting to gain a better platform up front but, at the moment, there is very little to worry their opponents behind the scrum. Leaving aside the Italy Six Nations game, the Red Rose have only scored more than two tries in a game once against a tier one nation and that came versus a 14-man Australia outfit, with two of those scores coming in the final minutes when the match was already lost. They need the Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis to start working or else the All Blacks will punish them off turnover ball.
If there is a lack of clarity, tempo or ideas, New Zealand will pounce and dominate at the contract area. They have been a real threat at the breakdown over recent weeks and their backline will enjoy it if they manage to get a steady stream of turnovers. Foster’s men, despite their issues, are still the best side around in transition and have the speed and intelligence in the backline, especially in the shape of playmakers Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, to create opportunities.
The gain line has also been a key factor in All Blacks games recently. With Schmidt as their coach, they are slightly narrower in attack and more direct, which means they will test the heart of the English defence. Scotland did well to negate that threat initially – unlike Wales – but, once New Zealand got the momentum and the Scottish rearguard tired, they proved to be very difficult to stop later on. England have to stay with them throughout the 80 minutes.
Last time they met
What they said
England captain Farrell has revealed he would rather have a victory over the All Blacks than any personal accolade.
Farrell will earn his 100th cap for the Red Rose but admits that he finds it difficult to receive praise for his achievements.
“I’m not too good at listening to stuff about myself. The sooner we get on to the game, the better,” he said.
“You’re not used to hearing people say nice things about you. A lot of it normally goes unsaid. I don’t think it’ll go on for too long.
“If you let it, this week can be a lot. I don’t intend on being like that, I intend on doing my job like the rest of the team.”
All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith insists that “there’s no better Test than playing England at Twickenham,” but admits the disappointment of the 2019 World Cup clash still remains.
“Probably more of a let-down that day for us was not showing up,” Smith said.
“Everyone talks about how England dominated us, but when you don’t throw a punch and don’t find a way to get back into the game it’s pretty gutting.
“I wouldn’t say that semi-final was all about how good they played, they just had a really good plan and shocked us early and we couldn’t get out of it.
“For some of us in that group there is scar tissue, but this year has been pretty tough as an All Black with some of the turmoil and off-field stuff and the media and everything. It’s probably been worse than that semi-final loss.”
Players to watch
It is fascinating, and to a large degree surprising, how both sides have set-up this weekend. During a time where plenty of observers have looked back to that World Cup semi-final clash, the key part of the respective packs are very reminiscent to that encounter. A lot of the worry for England going into that match was their lack of lineout jumpers but, thanks to a Steve Borthwick masterclass, they negated the All Blacks’ threat and in fact put pressure on the opposition set-piece.
Having then been rumbled in the showpiece event by South Africa, Jones duly set about finding an aerial presence in the back-row, with Courtney Lawes the player he settled on. However, with Lawes currently on the sidelines and Maro Itoje struggling at blindside, the head coach has ditched that hybrid forward role and gone back to the formula which, apart from one game, worked during the 2019 global tournament.
It means Sam Simmonds will start at blindside and form an incredibly athletic partnership with Tom Curry at flanker. Simmonds brings the pace of a back into that position and an excellent skill set to boot, but the question is whether the lineout will suffer. There is therefore a huge onus on Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill to negate the threat of New Zealand, who have altered their side to pressurise the English set-piece.
Only twice this year has Foster opted for Scott Barrett at six, but he has decided to repeat what Steve Hansen did for the World Cup semi-final by bringing him into the back-row for a game against England. It is an interesting move and one you question is wise, given how it faltered during that match three years, but there are three crucial differences; Saturday’s hosts don’t have Lawes, Borthwick or George Kruis, with the latter two having particularly brilliant set-piece minds.
In the form of Brodie Retallick, the latest to become an All Blacks centurion, they also have a player who has enjoyed his time at Twickenham. In 2018, he utterly dominated Itoje in the lineout and took away the platform the Red Rose had in the first half. Retallick has not been in the greatest form in 2022 but, on the occasion of his 100th Test, the lock will want to do him and his team justice this weekend.
The same can also be said of England’s Owen Farrell, who also reaches that landmark, as he lines up alongside Marcus Smith knowing that they have to start making that playmaking axis work. It functioned better against Japan, with the shaper service of Jack van Poortvliet no doubt helping, but this is a massive step up. Jones is basically pinning his hopes on those two clicking ahead of the World Cup, so it needs to start firing.
England will look to try and cause problems in New Zealand’s 13/14 channel, where a new combination resides for the visitors. Mark Telea deservedly keeps his place in the team after a fine two-try showing against Scotland but it will be another challenge to see whether his game matches up against this talented, if underperforming, English outfit.
Fresh from being robbed by World Rugby, who somehow decided that he wasn’t one of the best four men’s players in the sport this year, Ardie Savea will probably feel he has something to prove on Saturday. Needless to say, Savea has been outstanding in 2022, despite the All Blacks’ struggles, and has especially shone on this northern hemisphere tour. He will once again be a handful for the opposition, but England do have the physicality to make his life a bit more difficult this weekend.
He directly faces Billy Vunipola, a player who has not quite found his form in the Autumn Nations Series but is certainly in the right mindset to make a difference at Twickenham. Vunipola has been playing consistently well for Saracens over the past year and took that into the Australian tour, where he shone in the 2-1 series triumph. With the athletic Simmonds and Curry both providing that pace and work ethic around the field, it should certainly allow the number eight a chance to get his hands on the ball and to make an impact for the Red Rose.
In many ways, we quite like England’s selection. It will certainly give them more thrust in phase play and, if it works, will give Smith and Farrell better quality service for them to dictate play, but we do just wonder whether they will get enough clean ball. The All Blacks aren’t playing amazingly well but they have improved and the forward pack in particular is operating very effectively. New Zealand by five points.
2019: England won 19-7 in Yokohama
2018: New Zealand won 16-15 in London
2014: New Zealand won 24-21 in London
2014: New Zealand won 36-13 in Hamilton
2014: New Zealand won 28-27 in Dunedin
2014: New Zealand won 20-15 in Auckland
2013: New Zealand won 30-22 in London
2012: England won 38-21 in London
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Jonny May, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Sam Simmonds, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Will Stuart, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Jack Willis, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Guy Porter, 23 Henry Slade
New Zealand: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Jordie Barrett, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Dalton Papali’i, 6 Scott Barrett, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Ethan de Groot
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 George Bower, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Hoskins Sotutu, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 David Havili, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown
Date: Saturday, November 19
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referees: Damon Murphy (Australia), Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
READ MORE: Five storylines to watch including a titanic clash at Twickenham
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