Stuart Lancaster faces his toughest test since he took over as England coach in 2011 as he takes a young and inexperienced squad to face world champions New Zealand.
The All Blacks are a daunting prospect even with your first-choice players but Lancaster has been forced to rethink his team for the first Test in Auckland without key players who are unavailable after featuring in the Premiership final last weekend.
Many are expecting a thrashing and look to the 1998 ‘Tour of Hell’ as an example of what happens when you take a depleted squad south.
Back then, England were thrashed 76-0 by Australia and lost their two Test matches to New Zealand 64-22 and 40-0 before losing 18-0 to South Africa.
However, former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick is not so sure that it will be the whitewash everyone thinks it will be and says these youngsters could surprise a few people.
“A lot of people are looking at the first Test as being a bit of a joke and that New Zealand will win it easily but I believe that England have more chance of getting a win in the first Test than in the second or third, “ Fitzpatrick told Sky Sports.
“In the first Test you have these young English kids who have been given an opportunity and will want to grab it with both hands. I have been a young kid in an All Black team when I was given a chance when no one else was available. You don’t want to let the jersey down and you want to put in the best performance possible to potentially keep your spot.
“New Zealand are very aware of what is going on over here and know that some of these players can really step it up. There is going to be even more pressure on the experienced players, especially in the first Test. They are going to have to lead by example and settle those around them.
“Make no mistake, this is a huge challenge for England but it is all about building towards 2015. Not only in terms of giving young players experience and developing strength in depth but also by developing your good players into world class players – that is the goal for Lancaster, to have multiple world class players in his team.
“New Zealand have achieved that but it has not always been that way. Going back to 2011 I don’t think we had many world class players in the team – maybe four or five. They still managed to win the World Cup and have now developed possibly 10 plus world class players in this All Black team. That makes the other players in the team outstanding players.
“I know he is not playing but Kieran Read was not world class four years ago – he was a good player but he worked so hard to make that step up. Now Lancaster will be looking for his good players to take that step up, players like Mike Brown, who has the work ethic and the attitude to take that step up.”
The right approach
Fitzpatrick says that England’s forwards will always be competitive but it is how they approach the game in terms of commitment, tactics and belief that interests him.
“England can compete in the forwards – they are probably one of the most physical teams that New Zealand play against,” added the former hooker, who won 92 caps for New Zealand.
“England need to take them on and play rugby though – every opportunity they get they have to nail it. But New Zealand put amazing pressure on teams especially when they don’t have the ball. The All Blacks like playing without the ball – they are very defensive orientated and are able to turn that defence into attack.
“If England are to have a chance then every player has to be up for this – I heard what James Haskell said and I like what he is saying. His whole focus is on winning in New Zealand and he knows what is needed to do that. He knows it is going to take a huge commitment and every player needs to have that same attitude.”
As well as the three-Test series, England also have to endure a tough midweek game against Super Rugby giants the Crusaders. Fitzpatrick is expecting Lancaster to chop and change his team for all four matches and says that in itself could cause some problems.
“When you look at the New Zealand Super Rugby teams they all play in a similar fashion – they have all been schooled and told what they need to do, so going from their Super Rugby teams into the New Zealand team is not going to mean that a player has to change his style drastically to fit into their game plan.
“England have a different set-up and while I think that the Premiership is in the best shape that it has been in for years, each club has a different style - it is going to be a challenge because I would say three or four different teams will be running out.
“The one thing we will not see is a New Zealand team resting on their laurels. Steve Hansen has instilled a competitive edge into this team, even amongst the older boys.
"That is why the Malakai Fekitoas have been brought into the squad to make sure the older players are not getting too comfortable - I don’t think that they are but it’s always good to add more competition for the jersey. That All Black environment really makes the players raise their game. “
The last time England were in New Zealand was for the 2011 World Cup where their antics off the field marred a poor tournament under Martin Johnson. However, Fitzpatrick says that Lancaster has done a terrific job and has very clear ideas of what he wants to achieve on this tour.
“I think Lancaster has been outstanding and he is very calculated in where he wants to go and what they want to achieve this tour. England do have high expectations, but realistically if they can nick one of the Tests then they will be very satisfied with that.
“As All Blacks every game has to be won and that is what they will be thinking – it does not make a difference if they are home or away. Everyone was amazed when they went unbeaten last year - but as New Zealanders we expect the All Blacks to just win!
"A line has been put through last year’s achievement now and they will come back looking to be 30% better if they want to go another season unbeaten. That journey starts on Saturday.”