New Zealand v England: Key Battles That Will Shape Auckland Test
England’s heavily depleted side goes in against an All Blacks side almost at full strength for the first Test on Saturday.
As well as missing a gaggle of first-choice players, England also have the weight of history against them. The All Blacks have not tasted defeat in Auckland in 31 Tests.
But if Stuart Lancaster has achieved anything in his time rebuilding the English rugby mentality, it is that he has instilled an iron will in his men.
They will need all of that resolve combine with a clinical mindset when chances come their way to make history on Saturday.
Here is where the key battle will unfold.
Pundits highlighting the breakdown as a key area ahead of a game are beginning to sound like a broken record. But the fact remains it is crucial in who gains the upper hand in a match.
It will be no different on Saturday. England have gone for the experience of James Haskell to cover for Tom Wood, while Ben Morgan and Chris Robshaw picked themselves at No. 7 and No. 8.
They face Richie McCaw, who has been light on rugby so far this season, while Liam Messam plays No. 6 despite leading a struggling Chiefs side in Super Rugby. Jerome Kaino starts ahead of the concussion-plagued Kieran Read, which will be music to English ears, given Read’s propensity for scoring against them.
What New Zealand lose in Read’s roaming effectiveness, they gain in muscularity from Kaino, which is where England will expect Haskell, who has experience of playing Super Rugby, to match him.
But England’s main objective will be to stop McCaw from getting his mitts on the ball at ruck time.
Robshaw may not be in his natural environment bent double over the ball, but that’s where he will have to be to stop his side’s possession being pilfered at the breakdown.
It is worrying for English fans to see a fourth-choice pairing at No. 10 and No. 12 in the form of Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond.
They are bound to be targeted by New Zealand’s more experienced Aaron Cruden and Ma’a Nonu, the latter being certain to come charging down their channel as often as possible.
In attack, England simply have no previous experience on these two as a pair to surmise how they might perform.
Burns in form can jink through holes and likes to play flat, and we saw flashes of Eastmond’s quality last summer in Argentina.
Getting the better of Nonu and Co. will be a different task altogether.
If Rob Webber’s darts are on target, this is where England can compete—and maybe get the edge.
They have a Lion calling the shots in Geoff Parling and the impressive Joe Launchbury also jumping, a combination which should go some way to making up for the absence of Courtney Lawes.
The onus is on the inexperienced Webber to hit his men.
Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick may have more experience at this level as a pair, but if England can unsettle them early, good things can happen for the Red Rose.
We know about the qualities of Israel Dagg and the New Zealand back three if given space to run the ball back from a deep kick.
But it will be intriguing to see what the All Blacks make of Mike Brown, Jonny May and Marland Yarde.
There is guile and pace in that combination, and we saw Brown break the first tackle on almost every occasion when given the chance to run back at the opposition.
Yarde’s positional play is yet to come under scrutiny at this level and could be exposed.