Culture clash as England face All Blacks
“Styles make fights” is usually the talk of boxing promoters, but it could prove true of England’s long-awaited clash against world champions New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday.
England coach Eddie Jones has often insisted that trying to play the All Blacks at their own running-from-deep, passing game is a recipe for defeat, with the Australian championing the traditional Red Rose strengths of a powerful forward pack and solid set-piece.
And All Blacks coach Steve Hansen accepted there was more than one way to win a game.
“Southern hemisphere rugby – there’s a lot of talk about Super Rugby. It’s very free-flow- ing with a lot of tries, but in this part of the world, maybe because the environment is different, the weather is different, there is a necessity to play a tighter game,” Hansen said.
The experienced Jones also knows the virtues of adaptability. It was a trait England, then coached by Stuart Lancaster, showed in the last of just their seven wins over the All Blacks six years ago when, leading 12-0 at the break courtesy of four Owen Farrell penalties, they ran in three second-half tries through Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi in a 38-21 triumph.
Dashing wing Ashton is now set to make his first Test start in four years, but the injury-prone Tuilagi’s long wait for an England recall has been delayed by a groin problem.
Flyhalf Farrell has found himself in the spotlight after escaping any action for a seemingly illegal shoulder charge in the closing stages of an unconvincing 12-11 win over South Africa at Twickenham last weekend. But former Wallaby and Japan boss Jones insisted Farrell required the kind of protection referees routinely afforded by match officials to Ireland No 10 Jonathan Sexton.
“If he was Sexton then we’d be able to complain about him, but because he’s Owen Farrell he’s allowed to be hit late,” Jones said.
“He’s a tough rooster, a warrior. He puts his body on the line, he doesn’t play in a dinner suit.”
Ashton, 31, who came off the bench against the Springboks, has scored 19 tries in a 40-cap England career interrupted by suspensions and spending a season with French giants Toulon.
“That try-scoring skill is nothing coached,” Jones said.
“Guys like that, the only thing you can do is stuff them up by coaching them.”
Free rein is something that comes naturally to an All Blacks side where fullback Damian McKenzie will act as a “second playmaker” to star flyhalf Beauden Barrett in a first-choice team featuring Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue in midfield.
“We think against sides that play a little differently than we do, having two playmakers makes it a lot harder for them to shut us down,” said Hansen, whose side, fresh from victories over Australia and Japan, find themselves in their familiar role of favourites.
For all their ball-playing skill, few New Zealand sides have lacked physical presence and a team captained by No 8 Kieran Read will look to make an impact up front.
It all makes for an intriguing clash fewer than 12 months out from the 2019 World Cup in Japan – one made all the more exciting by the fact it is four years since England last played New Zealand.
“The old adage of less is more is probably a good thing,” Hansen said. “Would we be so excited about playing England if we were playing twice a year?
“We haven’t played them in four years and everyone is on the edge of their seat.”