Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
'England's depth sets up a superb New Zealand clash in Dunedin'
Last Updated: 10/06/14 9:42am
The second test in Dunedin is set to be something special.
England, at no more than half strength, gave an All Black team, themselves shorn of quality if not a quantity of players, quite a scare in the Kiwi stronghold of Eden Park.
For the first time since 2003 England is threatening the All Blacks on Southern soil. A year and a bit out from the World Cup and England are beginning to look like serious contenders. Home advantage will be a factor.
England, quite simply, would have won on Saturday had the game been at Twickenham. The subconscious home advantage came to the fore again as the visitors were victims of a series of calls that ranged from poor to inconsistent from Nigel Owens.
The moment the All Blacks cynically infringed on their own try line at 9-9 and received no more than a penalty (kicked by Freddie Burns) was to be the turning point of the game as a few minutes later, Brodie Retallick made a stunning burst through the midfield.
Marland Yarde eventually hauled him down but infringed. In the process he was shown an immediate yellow card although his infringement was a full thirty as opposed to less than three out.
There was no problem with the card for Yarde but the inconsistency of the decision making was appalling. Throw in Ma’a Nonu’s cynical pull back of James Haskell's shirt in the first few seconds of the game as Chris Robshaw roared through the All Black defence and England has a right to quietly gripe.
There were also a few inextricably wrong calls about knock-on decisions when the ball clearly travelled backwards; in a tight game it all adds up. Decisions go New Zealand’s way in New Zealand and I am sure they will go the way of England at Twickenham.
When next the teams meet in England nothing less than an England win will do. But what about when next they meet at Dunedin this Saturday? It is shaping up as one of the most fascinating tests in many a year.
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One-off games have a different heartbeat to a series. Inspiration has seen England home against New Zealand in Twickenham but a three-game series is an altogether different proposition. The All Blacks have been the historical masters of learning the quick turnaround lesson. They have long been the smartest of rugby nations.
In the space of a week they have to shore up their set piece and improve their breakdown when they gained less quick ball than suits them. These are the priorities along with getting the outstanding Kieran Read and Julian Savea back on the field.
And what about England, what will they do with their selection? So many fringe players played their way back into the centre of things Saturday. Stuart Lancaster has to decide whether to reward some outstanding individual performances or revert to his more tried and tested team.
In the front row, there is no question that Joe Marler will be named loose head and Dave Wilson tight. The Bath man was titanic in the tight although his handling was horrific. But what happens at hooker? Rob Webber was superb and Dylan Hartley has only played fifty minutes in quite some time?
What about second row where Geoff Parling was magnificent? Does he deserve to be dropped for Courtney Lawes? And Ben Morgan for Billy Vunipola, James Haskell for Tom Wood? These are all dilemmas in the forwards.
Behind the scrum things did not go the way of Ben Youngs and – if fit – Danny Care will definitely return. But should the in-form and goal-kicking Burns be left our Owen Farrell whose overall form and goal kicking has been patchy at the season’s tail end?
Kyle Eastmond poses questions at inside centre. Options are myriad – to keep Saturday’s well balanced midfield, to revert to Twelvetrees and Burrell with Manu Tuilagi on the wing?
When was the last time England had so many tough decisions to make? And to think Alex Corbisiero, Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole are unavailable along with Tom Croft, George Ford and young Nowell of Exeter. English international rugby has a depth of riches.
To answer the question over selection for Dunedin, I think the answer can be found, paradoxically, in Steve Hansen’s justification for starting Aaron Cruden over Beauden Barratt. The latter has been the form fly-half in New Zealand all season, the former the incumbent fly-half.
Hansen backed Cruden, citing the fact that no matter what Beauden has done, Cruden has proved himself at test level and done nothing to deserve being dropped.
Loyalty to players is an intrinsic part of the All Black philosophy that turns an international team into a tight club team. Lancaster is a shrewd man and will have seen the spectacular results of such a tightly bonded team. Expect him to stay loyal to the majority of his Six Nations men who lost their place through unavailability no matter how compelling the case made by many of Saturday’s star performers.
England will both expect and believe they can win but they also know New Zealand will improve for the first test. The rust is out of their system, the belief running through the English one.
I can think of nowhere else I would rather be next Saturday than Dunedin. If you can’t join me in the flesh, settle down with a pot of tea and maybe a bottle of champagne on ice – just in case.