November 2018 Test Matches

England vs New Zealand

Saturday, November 10

Venue: Twickenham
Kick-off: 15h00 GMT; 17h00 SA Time
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

This could get interesting!

The noises out of the England camp suggest that they really, firmly, and totally believe that they will beat the All Blacks. Of course, no team ever takes to the field with the fixed and firm belief that they will lose the game. What is the point of playing any game, if you start off thinking you will lose? Yet, one usually goes into a Test match with a certain amount of caution, and you do not talk the talk before you get the chance to walk the walk too.

Back in 2016 when Eddie Jones took over the coaching job with the England team, he immediately set his sights on reducing the gap between England and the All Blacks. Not only did he declare his intentions right from the word “Go!” but he also told anyone who was listening that the All Blacks were ripe for the plucking! He said that England would beat them anytime, anywhere.

Perhaps much of this was just bluster, aimed at instilling some belief in his new charges in the hope that, should they meet the All Blacks as scheduled in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals next year, England would have the mental strength and belief that they stood a good chance of thumping the All Blacks and going on to win the World Cup.

Perhaps too, their chances of beating the All Blacks were fairly good in 2016, and even early in 2017, before the England ship seemed to spring a leak or two as they struggled in the 2018 Six Nations and then on their tour to South Africa.

Back in 2016 and 2017 everybody looked forward to a clash with the All Blacks as the culmination of Eddie Jones’ rebuilding of the England team. Their “finest hour.”

Now, in November 2018, the scheduled Test is perhaps less enthralling than it was a year or two ago.

Have no doubt that England and Eddie Jones have been talking up their chances! Individual players have spoken about the All Blacks being beatable. Chris Ashton has said “Anyone on the day is beatable. It’s just that they [New Zealand] win a lot more times than other teams do”.

He also went on to talk about the impact Manu Tuilagi could make and that he, Ashton, would not like to be the man that has to tackle Tuilagi. (Perhaps Ashton is remembering the punches that Tuilagi laid on him in the 2011 Premiership semifinal between Leicester and Northampton. Tuilagi got a 5-week ban for that incident.)

Ben Youngs added to the expectations about Tuilagi’s influence, saying he looks in fine fettle, while hailing his influence on the squad. “We know what a world-class operator Manu is,” Youngs told Sky Sports. “Seeing him in your team settles the boys down knowing he is there. It was great to see him running round today. He is looking good.”

Strange then that Eddie Jones has left Tuilagi out of the Match-day 23 for this game?

Others have been doing some talking too.

Owen Farrell is celebrating his escape from censure for a clearly illegal tackle by focussing on the All Blacks. “Anyone can be beaten,” Farrell said. “I don’t think any team is unbeatable. We’ve got to make sure we concentrate on what we can do and I’m sure people will talk about all different things this week, we have got to make sure we get better and that shows on the pitch at the weekend.”

“They got beat not so long ago, didn’t they?

There has been talk about how Brad Shields is looking forward to playing against the country of his birth, especially as he had dreamed of wearing the famous black jersey until he gave up on the dream earlier this year and quickly switched sides. (Is he a British citizen yet?) Shields apparently has a point to prove.

We are also told that England have instructed Maro Itoje to get in the faces of the All Blacks on Saturday despite mounting concerns over his discipline. They believe that his physicality will somehow disrupt and aggravate the All Blacks.

It is all fighting talk from England.

I hope that it is more than simply making a lot of noise in the hope of scaring away the bears? It would be good to see a confident England rather than a hopeful England…

It is true that England have never had as much inside information on the All Blacks at their fingertips. Consider that they have two players in their pack of forwards who are born and bred New Zealanders, Brad Shields and their co-captain Dylan Hartley. They have an ex-All Blacks coach, John Mitchell in their coaching squad, and then add the English representatives on last year’s Lions tour with their experiences of playing against the All Blacks. And then there is the vastly experienced Eddie Jones himself, for all his faults he is an astute and knowledgeable rugby man that knows and understands the strengths and weaknesses of the All Blacks.

He has said: “You’ve got to play a certain way against them, there’s no doubt about that,” said Jones. “There are parts of the game they enjoy and you want to take them away from them.”

 “The attitude with which you start the game, the ferocity you play with … you’ve got to be in the game. Then, when you get the opportunity to score points, you’ve got to be good enough to take them.”

“They’re not a tricky team, they’re a good team,” added Jones.

As for the All Blacks? Well, as usual, they have just gone their quiet way as they prepare for this Test match….

Oh, and a thought: Watch Brad Shields when they sing the New Zealand national anthem and do the haka…. I wonder of he will be tempted to sing along and join the war-cry?

Selection News:

England:

Eddie Jones has named Chris Ashton and flanker Sam Underhill in the starting line-up to face New Zealand on Saturday.

Ashton comes in for Jack Nowell, who drops to the bench, while Underhill is at openside flanker in place of the injured Tom Curry.

Nowell’s selection in the 23 means that there is no place for Manu Tuilagi despite all the talk about the damage he would do, while Jones has also left out Zach Mercer, with Courtney Lawes coming into the squad. Mercer had a very good debut against South Africa and might be a bit miffed at his exclusion.

New Zealand:

Steve Hansen has made several changes to his starting line-up for their Test against England.

After fielding an alternative team in last weekend’s victory over Japan in Tokyo, Hansen has reverted to his first-choice squad and there are four alterations from his run-on side which beat Australia in Yokohama two weeks ago, with front-row Karl Tu’inukuafe, lock Brodie Retallick, scrum-half Aaron Smith and centre Jack Goodhue coming in to replace Joe Moody, Scott Barrett, TJ Perenara and Ryan Crotty respectively.

In the forwards, Tu’inukuafe starts in the number one jersey, replacing the injured Moody, alongside Codie Taylor and Owen Franks. Ofa Tuungafasi and Nepo Laulala, together with hooker Dane Coles, will provide front-row support from the bench.

Retallick and Sam Whitelock are in the second-row, with Liam Squire, Ardie Savea and captain Kieran Read as the loose trio. Scott Barrett and Matt Todd are lock and loose forward cover on the bench.

In the backs, Aaron Smith and fly-half Beauden Barrett will start, with the TJ Perenara and Richie Mo’unga to bring impact from the bench. Jack Goodhue returns from illness and is named at outside centre, with Sonny Bill Williams inside him, while the back three are unchanged from the Test against Australia, with Rieko Ioane in the 11 jersey, Ben Smith in 14 and Damian McKenzie at full-back. Ryan Crotty provides extra back cover in the run-on reserves.

Thoughts:

As I looked at the two teams selected for this Test, there was one simple indication how the Test will be played.

This Test promises to be a clash of styles, the world’s best attacking team against a team dead set on defending for all they are worth, hoping, praying perhaps, that the attackers will eventually tire of battering against a wall of rock solid defenders and then allow some cracks to appear in their own game.

Just one selection tells us much about the difference between these two sides. With Damian McKenzie at fullback, the All Blacks have sent the message that they will not change their game plan, they are not going to be forced into playing “ugly” rugby to win a game, they will look to run, and run, and run.

McKenzie brings the excitement, and sometimes considerable risk too, as he will undoubtedly have a crack, even when it is not always on. He brings that special counter-attacking ability that has made him one of the most exciting rugby players in the world. He is brave in the tackle and under the high ball. He also brings an alternative kicking option if Beauden Barrett’s boot is misfiring, as it is wont to do.

And he will be having a go. Period.

His coaches know and expect that.

“Everybody in our team has a clear licence to play what’s in front of them,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said. “That’s how I got brought up playing. The opposition tells you what you can and can’t do. Damian doesn’t miss too many opportunities so I’m assuming we’ll see it at some point.”

England are expected to play a kicking game, playing for position and territorial gain. The All Blacks know this and are prepared for it, bracing for an aerial bombardment. They have three of the best counter-attacking players in the world in their back three waiting for that kicked ball.

England are likely to try and play the same way that they did against the Springboks last week. It will be a kicking, mauling, defence-based approach.

It worked against an immature and inaccurate Springbok outfit. It is highly unlikely that the All Blacks will be as wasteful of possession and opportunity as their fellow southern hemisphereans.

Of course, England might well go out and try and play expansive, running rugby, although this would be a highly dangerous tactic. The All Blacks simply love teams that run at them. Breakdowns in the attack provide plenty of opportunities for a counter-strike. When the ball is spread wide and the clutter of players close to the ball thins out, that is when the All Blacks transition from defence to attack quicker than anyone else has ever managed to do it!

The All Blacks start with two out-and-out playmakers, Barrett and McKenzie, and have a third on the bench in Richie Mo’unga.  When Mo’unga comes on later in the game and combines with Barrett and McKenzie, the entire All Black attacking mindset becomes well-nigh impossible to shut down.

The inclusion of McKenzie along with Ioane and Smith in the back three gives Beauden Barrett more freedom to spark his natural game, playing off the solidity of either Sonny Bill Williams or the crafty Ryan Crotty at 12. The message is clear, this is a very dangerous All Black back division.

Much has been said about England actually winning a scrum penalty off South Africa, and that this is an indication that their front five is functioning better as they get to know each other. I am not sure that this is true.

In my view England have a lot of undersized props available at the moment. With Mako Vunipola and Matt Mullan unavailable because of injury and Dan Cole resting, along with the retirement of Joe Marler, England struggled to contain South Africa from the outset. Kyle Sinckler is no great scrummager, he struggled in South Africa in the mid-year and he struggled again last Saturday, while Ben Moon is a solid journeyman scrummager, but still a bit lightweight for Test rugby. The pressure on Dylan Hartley in the middle of the front row was such that he was subbed fairly early in proceedings last week, and he is likely to face similar pressures this week.

Last week the England lineout was steady, although they did allow South Africa two steals, and managed two of their own. Their lineout domination came off the back of some very poor deep throws by Malcolm Marx and not because of their own towering lineout strength. They will be competitive, but that might not be enough against probably the best lineout in world rugby today. The All Blacks have brought back Brodie Retallick, which simply ramps up the skill level in the lineouts and in the midfield collisions too.

The contrast in styles will be especially evident amongst the loose-trios. The All Blacks prefer to play a 2-4-2 formation in broken play, with two loose forwards going wide left and the other going wide right along with the hooker, while the heavy artillery of the locks and props batter through the middle. The deployment of two forward runners supporting out wide, no matter where the game is played at any one moment gives them enormous striking power when the ball is moved from the breakdown.

They look to move the ball away from contact as much as possible, either shifting the ball in the instant before a tackle, or by a very quick recycle of the ball on the ground. They play the ball out to the fringes where those roaming loose-forwards are waiting.

England, in contrast, try and play the ball up the middle with their loosies as primary ball carriers. Although they are missing their two big primary carriers, Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, they are not likely to change their system much. They will look to Underhill and Shields to support their midfield drives, with Wilson perhaps being given the brief to roam as he pleases.

The England system is slower, hence easier to defend, while the All Blacks like to play it quick, stretching defenders as much as possible.

We are, however, told that Twickenham will be wet on Saturday, which might suit the English system somewhat.

We will be watching this one with interest. Will England be able to step up another gear and match the All Blacks physically? Will the weather play a part? Will the All Blacks attack and attack again?

Prediction:

I am not sure that this England team, playing mainly defensive rugby, will be able to hold the All Blacks at bay the way they held South Africa off. This All Black outfit has shown that they can and do convert pressure into points far more slickly than any other team. Their skill levels are sublime, which elevates them a level above most opponents, even in the wet.

The All Black machine is a well-oiled and fine-tuned thing, and this England team is not quite that.

The All Blacks, by 15 points or more.

The Teams:

England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (cc), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Brad Shields, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dylan Hartley (cc), 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Courtney Lawes, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Jack Nowell

New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ofa Tuungafas, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Ryan Crotty