Twickenham intimidating stage for 11 facing old foe in new frontier
There are 11 All Blacks in their match day 23 who have never played England at Twickenham before.
To put that into some kind of perspective, the last time the All Blacks played at Twickenham in 2014, there were only three players — Patrick Tuipulotu, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett who were all on the bench — new to the experience.
In this modern age of saturated test coverage it is unusual for there to be so many All Blacks — almost half the team — who have never played against such a highly ranked Tier One opponent.
But this scenario is not just a statistical quirk brought up for interest’s sake. This is a relevant issue for the All Blacks as playing England at Twickenham – on Armistice Day to boot – is one of the great challenges in world rugby.
It ranks alongside playing the All Blacks at Eden Park or the Springboks at Ellis Park.
Essentially it is a must-tick item in any All Black's career as the experience of playing there takes individuals to the cusp, and maybe beyond, of their known mental and physical frontiers.
Twickenham is a rugby experience like no other. England know how to drive a sense of occasion better than any other nation and anyone who uses the term “cauldron” to categorise the effect of a stadium, should wait until they have seen England play at Twickenham before they anoint anywhere else with such a description.
From these towering stands will come this wall of noise that will drown out the haka. If England start well,
Swing Low will start to reverberate so loudly that no All Black will be able to hear themselves think or have a clue what their teammate next to them has said.
And as much as the atmosphere can intimidate opponents, it inspires England who have only lost there once in the last three years.
As a result, the wheels can fall off quickly and dramatically for opposition sides at Twickenham.
The All Blacks discovered that in 2012. England had been struggling for form until that day in early December and then boom . . . they clicked and New Zealand’s game unravelled. They became almost powerless to stop the white machine crushing them.
There is potential for history to repeat. England are a good team who lost their way earlier this year and the way things are with their own media, it doesn’t take much for them to be written off.
That’s how it is in England – there is no middle ground, no perspective. When England were winning Eddie Jones was being pushed for a
knighthood. They lose a few and it is off with his head.
The more balanced appraisal of England is that despite their injuries, they are capable of finding the physical edge, composure and accuracy to beat the All Blacks.
They are capable of tapping into the energy created by the crowd, of riding the sense of occasion to slowly build the pressure to the point where the All Blacks could go pop.
And so this will be a test of leadership for the All Blacks as much as anything else. This is the game above all others that will determine whether Kieran Read has the skills and strength of personality he needs to captain his team in the most hostile environments.
If ever there was a game the All Blacks need to be tactically certain, this is it. There has to be clarity in their decision-making and unity of understanding.
If things start going wrong, the rot will have to be stopped quickly or England, as Ireland did in Chicago two years ago, could push too far ahead on the scoreboard for a salvage job to be mustered.
Being able to stay calm in those moments when England are dominating will be the deciding factor as to whether the All Blacks win or not.
As All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said: “Playing England at home for anybody is a massive challenge. They have only been beaten there once in the recent reign.
“There will be 80,000 people singing songs and the only way we can call out them is by dominating and so at some point they are going to be singing because we won’t dominate for the whole 80 minutes.”
The All Blacks have everything they need to win. They have a commanding set-piece, an improving driving maul and a backline with strike power.
They can pass and catch, kick and chase and tucked away is X-factor that no one can match.
But it all has to be put together in the right way. It is about doing the right things at the right time and that group of players new to Twickenham finding a way to treat the experience like they would any other test.