Eng­land are the No 1 threat: Fitzy

Sunday News - - NEWS - MARC HINTON IN LON­DON

ALL Blacks leg­end Sean Fitz­patrick has warned that the sleep­ing gi­ant that is English rugby has awo­ken and is ‘‘breath­ing down the All Blacks’ necks’’.

Fitz­patrick, who played a record of 92 tests for All Blacks and now lives near Lon­don, has had a close-up look at the emer­gence of both Ed­die Jones’ Eng­land and Joe Sch­midt’s Ire­land as ar­guably the two big­gest threats to New Zealand’s tilt at a third straight World Cup crown.

While the All Blacks re­main the bench­mark in the game, Fitz­patrick feels that there has been an im­por­tant sea change in both mind­sets and prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion in English and Ir­ish rugby, in par­tic­u­lar.

‘‘They’ve had to re­alise the level of fit­ness and skill in club rugby here is not go­ing to be good enough to win test matches,’’ Fitz­patrick said in Lon­don. ‘‘That’s one of the big changes I’ve seen. The pres­sure they’re putting on their play­ers to lift, firstly, their fit­ness lev­els to com­pete with the south­ern hemi­sphere and, sec­ondly, their skillsets is sig­nif­i­cant.

‘‘With the money they’ve got and the mo­men­tum they’ve cre­ated, Eng­land es­pe­cially are a real threat. They’re on a crest at the mo­ment and they think they’re go­ing to take over the world. I wouldn’t un­der-es­ti­mate them.’’

The Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions’ his­toric dead­locked se­ries with the All Blacks ear­lier this year only re­in­forced that con­fi­dence, Fitz­patrick warned.

‘‘The Lions se­ries showed they have the abil­ity to an­a­lyse and learn, and go away and be­come bet­ter play­ers. It’s very ev­i­dent in what I’m see­ing up here they’re go­ing to be a force. The real threat for the All Blacks in 2019 is go­ing to come from the north­ern hemi­sphere. What Ed­die and Joe are try­ing to in­stil in their play­ers is that this is not just a one-month or even one-year job. They’re look­ing at be­com­ing a dom­i­nant force. That’s quite a change for the play­ers up here ... re­al­is­ing they’ve got to per­form ev­ery time they pull on the Eng­land and Ire­land jer­seys.

‘‘What they got from the Lions tour is po­ten­tially if we have the right per­son­nel we can beat the All Blacks. But we need to do a lot of hard work.’’

Fitz­patrick warns that what the All Blacks will see when they end a four-year hia­tus and fi­nally meet Jones’ Eng­land next Novem­ber is a much dif­fer­ent beast to the one they’ve rolled on 14 of the last 15 oc­ca­sions.

‘‘I think hav­ing an Aus­tralian run­ning it is mak­ing them a bit more clever. Dare I say it, he knows how we think. I’d be very, very wary, and I think Steve [Hansen] and the guys know that. He is analysing ev­ery­thing, and leav­ing no stone un­turned.

‘‘Eng­land are def­i­nitely breath­ing down the All Blacks’ necks. Are there many Eng­land play­ers I’d have in the All Blacks? Not re­ally. But col­lec­tively they’re a dan­ger.’’

Not that Fitz­patrick has been unim­pressed with the All Blacks this year, de­spite it be­ing the worst sea­son since Hansen took charge with two de­feats and a draw.

‘‘I think where they’re go­ing is won­der­ful. Their work ethic, depth, pres­sure the young kids are putting on the older guys is all im­pres­sive.

‘‘I just love that old ethos you never take your po­si­tion for granted, and we saw that this year with cer­tain play­ers who maybe GETTY IM­AGES got a bit com­fort­able and were moved on.

‘‘I like that at­ti­tude. They’re un­der the cosh. Teams are get­ting bet­ter. Teams are analysing them. The All Blacks know they also have to get bet­ter.’’

The one-time most durable hooker in the game be­lieves the All Blacks have to feel good about how they’re po­si­tioned two years out from the World Cup.

‘‘I’m ex­cited about the play­ers we have here and also the play­ers we have to come back. We’ve lost two games but we’ve learnt, ex­posed a num­ber of play­ers to test rugby, and what Steve Hansen has done is ex­actly what I’d want if he was run­ning my busi­ness.’’

In terms of the loom­ing three tests against France, Scot­land and Wales, Fitz­patrick is not so bullish about the All Blacks be­ing tested fully.

‘‘Scot­land are an im­prov­ing force, you never know with France and Wales are smart­ing a bit, but the style of rugby they play is just not con­ducive to beat­ing south­ern hemi­sphere teams.’’

For that true test the All Blacks will have to wait un­til next Novem­ber. Up here that matchup can’t hap­pen soon enough.

Steve Hansen wres­tles with Sonny Bill Wil­liams as Ryan Crotty and An­ton Lienert-Brown look on at Twick­en­ham.

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