In 2012, Britain’s golden year of sport, England’s victory over New Zealand at Twickenham felt like a footnote. Looking back now, less than a year away from the rugby World Cup, it feels like a turning point.
That remarkable win proved England could match and outmuscle the very best in the world. “You can’t turn up at a World Cup – even a home World Cup – and expect to win it if you haven’t beaten the big guns,” says Will Greenwood, a World Cup winner with England in 2003 and now a Sky Sports pundit. “England have that muscle memory of beating the All Blacks. A side like Wales doesn’t.”
Former New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick agrees, telling Greenwood he’s “concerned” about England’s power. But are the reigning world champions really that vulnerable? And who will rise to the occasion when the World Cup reaches its climax at Twickenham next October?
Sean Fitzpatrick England can beat the All Blacks. New Zealand’s captain Richie McCaw said that England are the most physical team they play. Man for man, he says, they’re stronger than South Africa. There’s something about this England side that puts the All Blacks under pressure.
Will Greenwood When I was playing for England in 2003, the night before matches our coach Clive Woodward would list the opposition on one side of a flipchart and our team on the other. Then he’d say, “Not one of those players would get into our team.”
Sean does the same. For about six years I’ve sat next to him in a TV studio, and in all that time England have probably only ever had one tick – until this summer.
SF I used to be concerned if there were more than two players in the opposition that I’d put in a combined XV. In this summer’s tour of New Zealand, there were five or six English names with ticks. Full-back Mike Brown was there. And Chris Robshaw has come on so far since being named captain two years ago.
WG Part of the reason the All Blacks tend to beat us is they believe they are better than us. It’s not arrogance; it’s just the way they’re brought up. It filled me with confidence to see one of the greatest All Blacks of all time slip in confidence in his own team.
SF Do you know what I like about England? The public are starting to expect them to win. It’s a good thing. When you’re put under that pressure as a player, you get scared by it. You have to harness that fear of failure.
When I was presented with my first All Blacks jersey on 26 June 1986, my coach Brian Lochore said, “Sean, when you pull this jersey on, make a mental note of that feeling. Every e f time you pull it on, recall that feeling.” As I walked out the door, he called, “There’s one other thing,Fitzy. You’re expected to win.”
WG One of the dangers is to assume that England are dull. They aren’t. Let’s not envisage New Zealand as this all-singing, all-dancing rugby force. They kick the bloody leather off the ball, press hard, earn turnovers and win. High-intensity basics are what they do.
SF New Zealand’s greatest strength is their ability to turn good players into great players. Kieran Read was a good number eight four years ago – now he’s the best in that position in the world, purely through hard work.
I can tell you this now, Will: when New Zealand played Australia, they’d worked out to the metre how far and how high they would need to kick to deny Australia the chance to run the ball back. That’s the level of detail.
WG And then there’s your captain, Richie McCaw. He’s a rock star at the breakdown, surviving at the highest level for ten years in a position where collisions are equivalent to car crashes. He understands the laws of the breakdown inside out – he’s been in them long before any of these referees picked up a whistle. The main role of a number seven is to steal the ball or slow it down. Of course, he’ll play to the edge of the laws and, if a referee pings him, he adapts.
SF New Zealand look at the way referees manage games, and then work out ways to slow the ball down. They’re working within the margins of the referee’s interpretation.
WG The biggest problem with England right now is that I don’t know what their best centre partnership is. Carling and Guscott; O’Driscoll and Darcy; Nonu and Smith: centre pairings should roll off the tongue. Coach Stuart Lancaster is going to brass a lot of people off over the next few months. He will settle upon a midfield that only two out of 20 people will agree with.
Billy Twelvetrees has been Lancaster’s number one guy, but he’s right on the edge now. Manu Tuilagi would have been non-negotiable, but because of his latest injury, the one guy Lancaster definitely wanted to play isn’t there.
SF This week’s match is crucial for both sides: if all goes right, it will be the last time they play each other before the World Cup final next year. I’m predicting an All Blacks v England final. I still think the All Blacks will win, but I’m concerned. We know England can beat us.
WG I’ve put money on England. Admittedly that was down to the odds! People don’t take into account the power of Twickenham. If we’re in the final, we’ll take our chances against anyone.
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