Tests seldom come much sterner than taking an All Blacks side unbeaten in 31 matches in New Zealand, yet Stuart Lancaster’s message could not be clearer, England are out to win.
The build-up to the first Test at Eden Park – a stadium the All Blacks have not lost in since 1994 – has centred around the scheduling row which has left Lancaster bereft of the Northampton Saints and Saracens players that featured in last Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final.
All Black lock Brodie Retallick managed to storm his way into the headlines in the lead up kick off too, claiming he could not name a single England player. But could the mystery factor and apparent unknown quantity of Lancaster’s side for the first Test work in their favour?
England’s most recent triumph over the world champions came at Twickenham in 2012 when they powered to a 38-21 victory, though, just six players that started on that December afternoon line up for the opening Test while the All Blacks retain 11 starters.
Last year's meeting between the sides, again at HQ, saw England produce a superb fightback before the All Blacks held out to claim a 30-22 win in November, but where will this first Test be won and lost?
Richie McCaw v Chris Robshaw
So much of the victory Lancaster’s side earned at Twickenham in 2012 came from the immense physicality of the back row at the breakdown, led by Robshaw. If England are to recreate history and claim only a third win on New Zealand territory, much will again rest on the shoulders of their talismanic flanker as he comes up against one of the game’s elder statesmen.
It is easy to overlook the fact this will only be a 26th cap for Robshaw, who became England captain on his second appearance, but the hopes of his nation will again be thrust upon his shoulders. Robshaw is charged with blowing away 124-cap McCaw in the tackle area and preventing him from thriving in his best role, clearing out rucks single-handedly.
With the help of Tom Wood, Robshaw succeeded in 2012 and again to a certain degree at Twickenham last year, although McCaw was on his way back his rampaging best. What Robshaw may lack in forcing turnovers and slowing play down he certainly makes up for in work ethic as he continually ends as England’s top tackler and carrier.
Ma’a Nonu v Manu Tuilagi
For a long time it has widely been perceived that a fit Tuilagi can be England’s Nonu, who is unequivocally one of the finest centres on the international stage. Both possess copious amounts of physicality and the ability to crash through defences leaving bodies strewn across the turf, but the question is, can Tuilagi live up to the billing against the one the best exponents of the craft?
Firstly, it has to be said that Lancaster’s decision to select Eastmond in the midfield will offer Tuilagi and extra lease of freedom in his preferred No 13 jersey, while Nonu will play inside Conrad Smith for the All Blacks. Tuilagi’s skillset and physical are unrivalled nationally, making him a certain selection when fit but when it comes to the international development it seems the Leicester Tigers centre has slipped in similar ways to Nonu did early in his All Black career.
“Trying to do too much by himself, not trusting other areas of his game,” is precisely how Nonu’s Hurricanes coach described his performances as he broke on the global radar. When Tuilagi is deployed purely as a battering ram, other areas of his game can be found wanting but the England centre can learn from Nonu, whose arsenal has increased significantly with the development of his kicking and passing game yet not diminishing in power.
Israel Dagg v Mike Brown
This is be a match-up of two of the three best full-backs in the world, with Australia’s Israel Folau completing the trio. Brown has enjoyed an immense season, claiming a succession of awards – including the RBS Six Nations Player of the Championship – while Dagg remains a consistent classy performer.
When England prevailed against the All Blacks in 2012 Brown was deployed on the left wing with Alex Goode at full-back, but ever since he was given a shot in the No 15 shirt the Harlequins flyer has stamped his name across it. It may have taken him 22 matches to claim his first England try but his influence as an attacking force has continually grown, developing the playmaking skills and ability to beat defenders, while his accuracy in defence is pinpoint.
Dagg’s turn of pace and lethal counter-attacking ability offers a potent All Black backline yet another potent threat. The Crusaders full-back boasts a full repertoire of skills with his speed and nifty footwork able to tear apart defences in a split second, while his decision making and kicking game from inside his own half are second-to-none.
Aaron Cruden v Freddie Burns
Danny Cipriani’s eagerly-anticipated return as the prodigal son of England’s training camp never seemed likely to lead to a start in the first Test, yet the selection of Gloucester’s Burns could prove to be a chink in their armour. While Burns has endured a turbulent term at Kingsholm, Cruden has fought hard to beat off competition from Beauden Barrett to claim the No 10 shirt for the All Blacks.
With the unparalleled Dan Carter currently on a sabbatical with a view to making the 2015 World Cup in England, the scrap to don the No 10 shirt has been fierce. Barrett threatened to challenge the present incumbent and Gareth Anscombe threw his name in the mix with a fine start to the Super Rugby season, but Cruden’s comfort in leadership and game organisation saw him named in the run-on side.
While Cruden is a chipper and cheeky personality on the international stage, Burns is certainly an unknown quantity with just three England caps, one of which coming as a second-half replacement. Despite a turbulent Premiership campaign, Burns remains one of the leading English fly-halves and will undoubtedly be encouraged by the show of faith and loyalty from Lancaster after spending plenty of time in the camp as Owen Farrell’s understudy.
Jerome Kaino v Ben Morgan
Both sides enter the first Test without their first choice No 8s, with IRB World Player of the Year Kieran Read injured for the All Blacks while Saracens’ Billy Vunipola will be expected to start in Dunedin. Yet, as a second choice, Kaino boasts 49 All Blacks caps and Morgan has a degree of experience himself with 20 international appearances.
Morgan has history with the All Blacks too having featured in that historic Twickenham triumph, providing further power to a potent England back row that saw off the one of the most experienced packs in world rugby. It has been a disappointing domestic season at Kingsholm for Morgan and Gloucester; yet with the red rose on his chest, the loose forward has rarely put a foot wrong, offering irrepressible breaks and a neat offload.
Meanwhile Kaino is a versatile back row that has become an established international despite taking heavy criticism from the New Zealand media early in his career for not scaling the heights of Read. No doubting Read is a tough act to follow, but Kaino is blessed with pace and athleticism having started out as a back before switching to the forward department and his powerful running game will test the sharpest of defences.