England must beat New Zealand to build momentum before Rugby World Cup

England beat New Zealand on a memorable night in Yokohama  (Getty)
England beat New Zealand on a memorable night in Yokohama (Getty)

International rugby’s power structure has shifted significantly in the last five years, and New Zealand’s place as sovereign has been further eroded by a mixed 2022, but such is the aura that accompanies the All Blacks their visit still elicits a certain, special sort of excitement. “This is like if you’re a mountain climber going to the top of Mount Everest,” said Eddie Jones, never one for understatement, on Thursday with the All Blacks preparing for a first visit to Twickenham since 2018.

Meetings between England and New Zealand have been rare in the last six years. When last these two collided it was the zenith of the Jones era, everything that the coach had built over his first four years in charge coalescing perfectly in 80 irresistible Yokohama minutes.

England’s players admit that they have not since recaptured the same certainty and confidence they achieved in the week of that 2019 World Cup semi-final. Neither they nor New Zealand would claim to be in the rudest of health as they prepare to meet again a year out from the World Cup, with plenty of developing to do and Jones believing that both sides are in a similar “renovation” phase.

But there has been a sense of calm and belief in England camp this week. This calendar year has seen Ireland and Argentina win on New Zealand soil for the first time, and Scotland came close to their own historic victory last week; the fear factor, it seems, has gone.

“You’ve got to truly believe you can win; that your strengths are stronger than theirs,” explained Jones, who boasts an enviable record against New Zealand as a coach, of how to confront the challenge. “You’ve got truly believe you will expose their weaknesses. I know with our team we believe we can win.

“They’re historically the most successful team in world rugby and the team you want to play against. These are the games that players remember in their careers.

“The Yokohama game they were a different team. They played differently than they do now. It’s more about our players understanding what it takes to beat New Zealand. It takes a massive effort – our players understand that. We’re prepared for it. We’re going to go after them.”

England are seeking another shock and awe opening quarter to rock the All Blacks, hoping to fire out of the blocks as they did in that semi-final. Having spent all autumn talking up the importance of having a third proficient lineout jumper in his pack, Jones switches strategy, hoping that Sam Simmonds can offer mobility and extra breakdown intensity on his first start as flanker at international level.

By contrast, with Brodie Retallick available again, New Zealand shift Scott Barrett to the blindside. It was a ploy used by the All Blacks for the semi-final three years ago that backfired, forcing then-coach Steve Hansen to hook Barrett at half-time. Scott’s brother Jordie reverts to inside centre, a recent problem position for which the youngest Barrett looks the best solution.

The All Blacks perform the Haka before thrashing Wales (Getty)
The All Blacks perform the Haka before thrashing Wales (Getty)

For all the talk of New Zealand’s plight they arrive at Twickenham on a six-match winning run and with the chance of the sort of statement victory that Ian Foster may need.

“We’re in a good space and I like where our game’s going,” said Foster, who played down any talk that his side would be out for revenge. “[England] like to play a real strong pressure game and to squeeze your game and your mindset a little bit. The challenge for us against this particular opposition is to make sure that we don’t go into our shell.”

Retallick joins England captain Owen Farrell in achieving 100 caps at Twickenham on Saturday – both men still have plenty more to give at the age of 31. Farrell becomes just the third male English centurion but has been as team-focused as ever this week.

“Owen is probably the most ego-less player I’ve met,” said Jones of his captain. “He just gets on with the job. He understands the job to do this week. He’s not been any different at all this week.”

Having fallen behind during this four-year cycle, there is enough time yet before next year’s World Cup for these two traditional superpowers to summit again but this feels a pivotal moment for each side with Ireland and France climbing clear. England have beaten New Zealand twice consecutively only once before – if, as Jones hopes, the hosts are to take the next step in their development then it will have to happen again.

Wales vs Georgia

Wayne Pivac put his cards on the table early this week, naming his Welsh side to take on Georgia on Tuesday. A long-awaited first cap for Josh Macleod, robbed of an international debut due to injury in each of the last two years, is the standout news of Pivac’s selection but the continued development of Louis Rees-Zammit as an international full-back will probably have greater bearing on how Pivac shapes his Welsh side moving forward.

It is a more inexperienced group of Georgian forwards than usual, particularly at prop, and set-piece stability will be key. If the visitors can hold their own up front, there is plenty of quality in the backline, not least moustachioed menace Davit Niniashvili, so dynamic for Lyon over the last two seasons.

Scotland vs Argentina

There was so much to like about Scotland’s performance against New Zealand last weekend, with Richie Gray leading a resurgent forward effort and Finn Russell adding undoubted big-match experience and control at fly-half. But the familiar position of plucky losers can grow tiresome for the Scottish rugby public and Gregor Townsend’s side must now show they can string positive performances together – and secure a win.

Gray’s suspension is a blow both for Scotland and a player back to his best; Argentina’s ferocious back five forwards will mightily test a reshaped Scottish pack also shorn of Hamish Watson.

Scotland fly-half Finn Russell (Getty)
Scotland fly-half Finn Russell (Getty)

Ireland vs Australia

Ireland will be keen to avoid any kind of complacency in the final game of a successful year for Andy Farrell’s side. Australia have had a peculiar autumn and will be hurting after coming up short against Italy, but could struggle to counter Ireland’s ball movement.

If Dave Rennie’s side can stay in the battle at the Aviva Stadium, the Wallabies may back their bench to make a difference late on. Power players Taniela Tupou, Will Skelton and Pete Samu should all bring plenty of impact, and it is a slightly depleted Irish squad due to injury. Replacement halves Craig Casey and Jack Crowley are undoubtedly talented but will face huge tests if either Jamison Gibson-Park or Johnny Sexton departs early.