There were a lot of things riding on last Saturdays encounter between a England team brimming with talent but not a lot of direction, and an All Blacks team ravaged by the economic might of European clubs (Jerry Collins joins the likes of Luke McAllister, Aaron Mauger and Carl Hayman to name but a few now plying there trade in Europe) and the upset of the World Cup when the French sent them home before the semi finals. Graham Henry survived, surprisingly, and Robbie Deans is now an honorary wallaby. This test series is where we really find out how far both have come since the world cup and my god is there a lot to sort out.
England were up to their old tricks, a generally poor performance with a few distant sparks of talent flashing once in a while. While the All Blacks were dominant at the break down, enter Mr. McCaw, but the loss of talent has taken its toll. Dan Carter is almost back to his frankly freakishly good best and Ma'a Nonu seems to be finally showing the signs of maturity in his game he has lacked. His speed and mass of body previously made up for his lack of speed of mind but it seems the latter is beginning to catch up, especially now he has to think more playing at 12. Speaking of 12's, everyone knew that England’s only second choice fly-half was Olly Barkley, yet he didn’t touch a ball playing at 10 throughout the previous training sessions. Sod's law Hodgson attempts to tackle Nonu round the shoulders as if he were a scrum-half. Unfortunately he is not a scrum-half he is the largest of large chunks of pure Kiwi beefcake and Hodgson would have been better adopting the fetal position and hoping he would simply trip over him. It would be unfair to not give him another chance because he can put runners into gaps better than any other fly-half in the country. However, on the other side of the same coin, he has shown his vulnerability in an England jersey once again. In the forwards, Tom Rees and James Haskel played brilliantly, and Tom Rees will probably take over as the number one rucker in the world if he keeps pinching ball of McCaw and his cronies. The bad for England? Well the team just doesn't gel against opposition such as the All Blacks. New Zealand have changed there tactics to suit the best players in there squad. Nonu crashes up the middle off carter moving the gain line, then this frees the likes of Sivivatu to collect kicks or longer passing moves out wide. England haven't adapted their tactics to suit the adjustments they have had to make, Hodgson needed bigger strike runners, Barkley is more suited now to an abrasive 10 that allows him to move around and make decisions.
Now, however, we must look to the future and Saturdays test. Sheridan is missing, and the other 5 changes are all backs. Danny Care has earned his call up to starting number 9 and should provide a bit of dynamism from the base. Flood replaces Hodgson at fly half (expect a Nonu shaped divot to be permanently etched into the slight Toby Flood), Noon is in for Barkley after the midfield defensive failures, and the speedsters in Tom Varndell and Mathew Tait now enter the back three. After so much change I think it is to much to expect a win, but these players will all be out to show their worth and hold on to their jerseys'. Haskel and Rees need to continue to disrupt and try and dominate the breakdown, and where was the maestro prop last weekend? I’m fairly sure he was on the pitch but a lot of props look the same from afar, Stevens needs to show his worth as a fantastic ball carrier along with Lee Mears and shift the point of attack around, keep the All Blacks guessing. The Kiwis are relatively in experienced unit in terms of playing with each other so exploit it, move them around the park, Nonu is a defensive weakness and should be targeted but then getting into him quickly and nullifying him when it comes to attack will put pressure on carter to throw the 50/50 pass or try him self. Knowing him he will pull it off a few times, but the few times he doesn't England have to be there to mop up the pieces.
As far as New Zealand, they need to generate quick ball as they do so often, and use the boot of carter to force England backwards and force them to run. Expect an inexperienced back three to be tested in terms of their cohesion but don't be surprised to see Topsy Ojo flying down the wing and picking up another try against the Islanders. I have purposefully not spoken of his contribution so far because it is important to stress that Topsy Ojo is probably going to develop into one of the best finishers around, he has all the speed and talent, but he also has the same premature maturity that Danny Cipriani has developed. While his tries were opportunistic he finished them very well and that's what a world class wing should be able to do. Just look at how many tries Bryan Habana scores when he receives a pass from the opposition. He is going into another duel with Sivivatu and it will be fascinating to see who will come out on top.
Now we come to gritty business of predictions, with the England line up seeing so much change, especially in the backs, I can't see an England win, but if the backs function defensively and are cohesive then who knows what might happen. Either way it should add up to a great game of rugby.