England are the No 1 threat: Fitzy
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.