Abs wary of England
November 30, 2012, 14:39:46
New Zealand may be overwhelming favourites to beat England at Twickenham on Saturday and so end 2012 undefeated, but coach Steve Hansen is adamant the world champions won't take their hosts lightly.
The All Blacks head into their final test of the year on a 20-match unbeaten run and having won their last nine internationals against England.
Indeed so long ago was England's last win over New Zealand, a 15-13 success in Wellington nine years ago, it came a few months before they won the 2003 World Cup.
And with fit-again flyhalf Dan Carter set to direct operations, New Zealand are arguably a stronger side than the one that beat Wales 33-10 last weekend.
England are still searching for a first win over a major southern hemisphere nation under coach Stuart Lancaster after last week's 16-15 loss to South Africa followed a 20-14 defeat by Australia earlier this month.
"We know that the English will lift themselves for their final match of the year, especially following their two recent narrow defeats, and we need to be prepared to match them in all facets," said Hansen.
The one area where most judges might agree that England fly-half Owen Farrell has the edge over Carter is match fitness, which makes it all the more remarkable the 21-year-old has been named alongside the All Blacks ace in the list of nominees for the International Rugby Board player of the year award.
"It may be a game against the best team in the world but it is still another game of rugby," said a bullish Farrell, in for the injured Toby Flood in the only change to the starting XV that failed to score a try against South Africa.
"I have been coming off the bench but I feel I have been getting better and better as the weeks have been going on."
But it is England's back three of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and Mike Brown that Hansen believes represents the most attacking aspect of the hosts' line-up.
"They (England) will be desperate," said Hansen. "Stuart Lancaster is doing a pretty good job and has a fair idea of what he wants, but it will take him time. The back three is as good a back three as in world rugby."
Hansen has made three changes to the starting side that beat Wales, recalling Carter in place of Aaron Cruden and being forced to bring in Keven Mealamu at hooker after Andrew Hore was suspended for punching Welsh lock Bradley Davies.
"We don't want to see that in the game and although we love Andrew, we didn't love what he did," Hansen insisted.
Meanwhile Brodie Retallick has been selected at lock in place of Luke Romano in a bid to help New Zealand counter the physical threat of England's pack.
But it is the breakdown, where New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, set for a long sabbatical after this match, will face fellow openside flanker and England skipper Chris Robshaw, that is likely to prove decisive.
Lancaster, as he must, insisted New Zealand were beatable – but quite how England are meant to cross the All Blacks' line remains to be seen.
Doubts persist over England's ability to create and indeed, such have been their numerous handling errors this month, finish tries against the world's leading teams.
A midfield combination of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi lacks little in physical power but neither man could said to be the natural successor to ball-playing 2003 World Cup-winning centre Will Greenwood.
"This is a young side who have pushed two southern hemisphere teams very close," said Lancaster. "We are hugely motivated to get that win this weekend.
"Our mindset going into the game we have a 'no fear' mentality and we want to make sure that we front up."
A lack of composure cost England dear against both the Wallabies and the Springboks and Lancaster stressed: "We have got to keep our brains cool."
Looks like a tough one for the wee abs!