All Blacks have licence to thrill against England
Steve Hansen wants the All Blacks to terrorise England with power, speed and daring.
The All Blacks coach has banged his cards on the table by naming a side containing Brodie Retallick as a run-on lock for the first time in two months, Aaron Smith back at halfback, two playmakers in Beauden Barrett at No 10 and Damian McKenzie at fullback, and a fully fit Jack Goodhue at centre.
Barring the absence of prop Joe Moody, forced to withdraw because of a split eyelid and unavailable for the rest of the tour, this is arguably the strongest team the All Blacks could field at Twickenham on Sunday morning.
You don’t pick a side like this if you want to bung the ball in the air, and ensure the halfway line is in the rear vision mirror before doing anything adventurous.
Despite England being expected to bring a fast defensive line, as the British and Irish Lions did in New Zealand last year, Hansen will stick with the ethos that his players should be allowed to make decisions based on what is unfolding in front of them, rather than follow a paint-by-numbers plan.
First things first, though. He had to assess England’s threats, and has a pretty good idea what they will be.
‘‘They might trick us and come out and play expansive, running rugby,’’ Hansen said. ‘‘But I don’t think so.’’
So there you have it. He, like 99 per cent of the rugby population in both hemispheres, expects the Eddie Jones-coached Englishmen to minimise the risks by chasing punts from Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, use their forwards to be combative in all contact areas and smother anything that wriggles in black with defensive hits.
Hansen said if England want to play that way, that’s their business: ‘‘It doesn’t mean they are a better side, or worse side than us. They just play different. If you look at the test match [against South Africa] last week, a lot of people think how they kick it all the time and that it is pretty negative rugby.
‘‘But they don’t give you many opportunities to do things. And they pride themselves on that, and they hang in there.’’
There is an element of risk in what the All Blacks are proposing to do at Twickenham, especially with the mercurial McKenzie, who started at No 15 when the All Blacks’ A-listers beat the Wallabies 37-20 in Yokohama on October 27, permitted to back himself if he sees space.
It was Hansen himself who once described McKenzie as a ‘‘fly in the bottle’’, his way of saying you take the rough with the smooth with his option-taking.
No doubt the selectors would argue McKenzie is a more reliable model now, and clearly they were encouraged by the way he helped take the pressure off Barrett in Yokohama as a second playmaker.
‘‘Everybody in our team has a clear licence to play what is in front of them,’’ Hansen said. ‘‘That is how I got brought up playing. The opposition tell you what you can do, and can’t do. So my expectation is that if it’s on to counter, then we counter.
‘‘If it is not on, then we don’t. Damian doesn’t miss too many opportunities. He likes it, so we are assuming we will see it at some point.’’
At a glance
Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (capt), Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Karl Tu’inukuafe. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty.
The All Blacks, here visiting the workshop of Formula One team McLaren in Woking yesterday, aim to turn on the speed with their selection to play England in London this weekend.