Family considerations already taken into account, I shall be up early – well 0800 hours UK time – on Saturday 7th June in order to watch Sky Sport’s ‘live’ coverage of the first of three rugby tests that England play on their tour of New Zealand.
In this piece I shall make minimal comments upon the details of the match day squads, which were announced on Wednesday. Readers can find the team lists – and the reactions to them in the newspapers – and I very much doubt that any observations I bring to the party now as I type will add much insight to the sum of the professional journos’ preview musings.
I’ve already blogged upon the rugby authorities’ cock-ups that have resulted in England head coach Stuart Lancaster having to field a team for this first test that is devoid of probably ten of his preferred ‘first team’ would-be selections. To his credit, whatever he and his coaching team are feeling inside, they’ve been consistently straightforward and upbeat in their public pronouncements as the English season drew to its close and the tour arrangements were put in place.
It is obvious that the chances of England prevailing on Saturday are slim. In gambling circles it is sometimes said that the ‘smart money’ is going a certain way. There’s no need for smart money in the context of this fixture. I’ve seen a quotation giving New Zealand at 1/16 on to win and, whilst I cannot see England succumbing on this Southern Hemisphere tour as they did at Brisbane in June 1998 to the tune of eleven tries and a score-line of 76-0 against Australia, I’m convinced they will lose – albeit in the process giving a reasonable account of themselves.
It’s all relative, of course, and my record at crystal-ball gazing is not great, but I would regard a losing margin of less than 20 points as a serious step forward for England’s chances at next year’s Rugby World Cup in terms of both depth in quality and confidence in the England squad.
I do not personally subscribe to the myth of the All Blacks as rugby supermen – they’re only human like the rest of us, after all – and, along with their reputation for efficiency and ruthlessness, comes a willingness to indulge in the ‘dark arts’ and/or exploit whatever they can get away with in the cause of victory.
Those that watched it – as I did on television – will never forget the notorious 1978 incident at Cardiff Arms Park when, in a pre-arranged move in the dying minutes of a Wales v New Zealand test which Wales were winning 12-10, All Blacks Andy Haden and Frank Oliver threw themselves sideways out of a line-out as the ball was thrown in, after which a penalty was awarded which Kiwi full back Brian McKecknie slotted to give a 13-12 victory to the visitors.
If you ask those Northern Hemisphere forwards who played against him, they invariably nominate former All Black hooker and skipper Sean Fitzpatrick as the hardest man they ever faced.
Similarly, I have read former international pundits, now turned journalists, grudgingly referring to All Black captain Richie McCaw – undoubtedly one of the greatest players in the history of the game – as having spent his entire career offside at the breakdown.
In advance of this England tour, some had suggested – in response to England’s selection predicament for the first test – that, within reason, the All Blacks coaches might take the opportunity to experiment and/or blood some youngsters in their own match day 23.
Anyone who aired that view understands little of the New Zealand rugby psyche. The sport is such a part of their culture that they would never consider taking their foot off the pedal.
In an interview in The Guardian this week, a young English lock Matt Symons, aged 24, currently playing for the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand, described his first experience of Kiwi club rugby, in a side containing two former All Blacks, Reuben Thorne and Aaron Mauger. He was amazed, not only at their evident humility, but at how the other players worshipped them and did not want to let them down. It made for a terrific team spirit.
To be an All Black in New Zealand is a special privilege. There is no possibility of a new All Black falling victim to a slight sense of relaxation at having ‘arrived’, as can happen in other countries. A New Zealander wants to be more than just an international, he ‘takes a fresh guard’ (to use a cricketing term) and presses on in his quest to be remembered as a great All Black.
Among the things I like about the Kiwi attitude to rugby success is their inherent modesty, even though they know they’re bloody good. When England thrashed the All Blacks 38-21 at Twickenham in December 2012, I felt deep respect for NZ captain Richie McCaw when, giving his post-match interview on the pitch, he said straight away that they’d been beaten fair and square on the day and offered fulsome praise to England.
No excuses, hints of criticism of the officials, or any stereotypical losing clichéd references to “having things to take from the game and others to work on for next time, etc.” which British sports fans – and not just of rugby – have come to accept as the norm.
Hanson’s explanation of his team selection yesterday included curt matter-of-fact reasons for why some players were being rested (e.g. Keiran Read for a concussion problem), dropped or selected. They still have a total of 968 caps across their match day 23.
It’s reasonable to assume that it’s going to be a tough day at the office for their England counterparts at Auckland’s Eden Park on Saturday morning.