New Zealand vs. England: 5 Key Battles for Hamilton Test

Jack Fairs@fairzy7Contributor IIIJune 18, 2014

New Zealand vs. England: 5 Key Battles for Hamilton Test

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    England suffered an agonising one-point defeat, as they lost 28-27 to New Zealand in Dunedin on Saturday. In the "House of Pain," it was not the usual tortuous heavy defeat that did the damage but the tantalising proximity to an English victory.

    England had led the All Blacks 10-6 at half-time, but a second-half surge from the Kiwis meant that the late English fightback was ultimately in vain. With the three-match series now irretrievable, Stuart Lancaster's attention will be firmly fixed on avoiding a whitewash in Hamilton on Saturday. Certainly captain Chris Robshaw understands this.

    "It's a result-based industry and unfortunately we've had two losses and lost the series. But we've got another match to come next week and we're going to come out fighting again.''

    The series has seen two titanic tussles so far. Although the result of the series has now been confirmed, we are set for an enticing finale in Hamilton. Here is a look at the key battles that England will have to win to overturn last week's smallest of defeats.

Billy Vunipola vs. Kieran Read

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    Billy Vunipola vs. Kieran Read

    Billy Vunipola missed out on the first test in Auckland after his involvement for Saracens in the Aviva Premiership Final. The No. 8 was instrumental in England's fightback in Dunedin and could be set for a head-to-head with a returning Kieran Read in Hamilton.

    This is a battle that would see the widely accepted No. 1 No. 8 come up against the young pretender in 21-year-old Billy Vunipola.

    Vunipola has really come of age this year with his bulldozing ball-carrying. However, will he be able to match the rounded game of Kieran Read? The Kiwi No. 8 has been missing from the first two Tests with concussion. Vunipola will be sure to give Read a thorough fitness check. 

    Whichever No. 8 can give his team forward momentum will surely finish on the winning side.

Manu Tuilagi vs. Malakai Fekitoa

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    Manu Tuilagi vs Malakai Fekitoa

    You would think the All Blacks would be weakened by the loss of outside centre Conrad Smith with a broken thumb. However, such is the strength of Kiwi rugby that they have a real handful of a replacement in Highlander's Malakai Fekitoa.

    England's experiment of deploying Manu Tuilagi on the wing did not yield conclusive results. He produced a smart offload for Chris Ashton's try, but otherwise seemed isolated. Do not be surprised to see Tuilagi return to the centres in Hamilton in order to provide England's key man more ball.

    If Tuilagi does return to the No. 13 shirt, he will be confronted with a very similar player in the Kiwi side. Malakai Fekitoa is frighteningly fast and combines this speed with the strength to shrug off tacklers with ease. The main difference between the two is their route of running. While Fekitoa likes to use his feet and strength to find a gap, Tuilagi prefers to run straight over players.

    Fekitoa versus Tuilagi is a mouthwatering meeting of pace and power. Tuilagi's international experience may just give him the edge over this exciting new All Black.

Mike Brown vs. Ben Smith

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    Mike Brown vs Ben Smith

    Mike Brown has been England's key performer in the past year. Ever reliable under the high ball and an elusive open-field runner, Brown is central to both England's defence and attack.

    However, it was a Kiwi full-back that stole the show in Dunedin. Ben Smith was starting his first game at full-back for the All Blacks, replacing Israel Dagg. However, his performance was assured and confident, snuffing out England attacks and asking questions in offence with his clever running lines. 

    A performing full-back spreads confidence throughout a team. They know that kicks will be returned with interest and that they have a potent threat in attack. Brown will not like being overshadowed by Smith and will be looking to dominate their battle this time around.

Chris Robshaw vs. Richie McCaw

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    Chris Robshaw vs. Richie McCaw

    The battle of the captains. Both leaders by example who graft on the floor and carry with uncomplicated determination. 

    McCaw is the undisputed master of the breakdown who turns over or slows down opposition ball. Robshaw cannot boast quite the same success rate at the tackle area but he is similarly important to his side. He is tireless in the tackle and is always seen carrying the ball when England most need it.

    McCaw is 33 now and, after spending years at the top of the game, his supremacy is not quite what it was. However, if McCaw plays well, England will struggle to get the quick ball required to challenge the Kiwi defence. If England are able to do this, it will be because Robshaw, in combination with Tom Wood, has won them front-foot ball.

Freddie Burns vs. Aaron Cruden

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    Freddie Burns vs Aaron Cruden

    Owen Farrell's knee-ligament injury takes away something of a selection dilemma for Stuart Lancaster. Freddie Burns performed well in Auckland and Farrell did little to convince his return was justified in Dunedin.

    Burns's performance in the first Test was something of a surprise after his poor form for Gloucester this season. However, with Farrell's injury, the new Leicester fly-half has a chance to prove that this performance was not just a flash in the pan.

    Kiwi fly-half Aaron Cruden also has a point to prove. Beauden Barrett, the Hurricanes fly-half, is being widely touted to replace Cruden in the starting XV. His lightning speed has won many admirers and Cruden will need to produce a convincing display to quash this speculation. 

    England's fly-half fight-off is a rather more open affair. Burns is among a number of fly-halves breathing down Farrell's neck. Danny Cipriani, Stephen Myler and George Ford have all had good seasons.

    Burns here has a real chance to push his name to the front of the queue by performing in the world's toughest rugby environment. Cruden will be hoping to achieve the opposite: To hold off his rivals and hold on as the man in possession of the All Black No. 10 shirt.