Saturday June 7, 3:35 AM Eastern – Eden Park, Auckland
Well, this is the mother of all challenges for England. During negotiations with their Kiwi counterparts several years ago, the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) somehow contrived to schedule the first Test just one week after the Aviva Premiership final, meaning that the 14 England players who participated in that match last Saturday are unavailable for selection. So Stuart Lancaster has been forced to select a XV with just 299 caps, 480 fewer than the battle-hardened All Blacks, who haven’t lost at Eden Park in 20 years.
Much has been made about England’s fourth-choice 10-12 combination – flyhalf Freddie Burns and inside center Kyle Eastmond will face a trial by fire. Winger Marland Yarde is also very raw. All three have huge potential, but will this match be too soon for them? Scrumhalf Danny Care is apparently 50/50 with a shoulder knock – he would be a big loss as Ben Youngs has been in indifferent form, and is not nearly as dynamic as Care.
Rob Webber gets a rare start at hooker, with Tom Youngs unavailable and Dylan Hartley one of the aforementioned 14 who have only just flown over to New Zealand after the Premiership final. Webber is joined in the front row by two capable operators in Joe Marler and David Wilson, but the 3 front row replacements have only 9 caps between them, so Lancaster will be praying none of them have to join the fray too early.
With Tom Wood another of the 14 unavailable, James Haskell makes his return to the international scene. Haskell is the most experienced player in the side, with 50 caps, and has also had the valuable experience of playing Super Rugby with the Highlanders in 2012. He knows first-hand the incredible physical intensity of rugby in New Zealand, and will need to be very abrasive without giving away penalties if England are to have a chance. The blow of Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola missing out is softened somewhat by the quality of their replacements – British & Irish Lion Geoff Parling, and the hard-running Ben Morgan.
The All Blacks are also missing two key players, the world’s best number 8, Kieran Read, and one of the world’s most dangerous wingers, Julian Savea. Their replacements Jerome Kaino and Cory Jane are also fantastic players, but will not pose quite the same threat. Still, from 1-15, this is an incredibly strong All Blacks side. It will be interesting to see how Aaron Cruden performs after missing several games in April and May with a broken thumb. Beauden Barrett has been the form flyhalf in New Zealand, but it is understandable that Steve Hansen has gone with what he knows. It is great to see Hansen reward the uncapped trio of Patrick Tuipolotu, TJ Perenara, and Malakai Fekitoa for their phenomenal Super Rugby form with spots on the bench.
England are 20-point underdogs – I don’t see the situation as quite that dire, but it’s true that the match could get out of hand. England’s only option is to come out guns blazing and put the All Blacks under early pressure. If they let the All Blacks dictate the tempo and start to control the game, it will be incredibly difficult to stay in it. The front five need to get the set piece running smoothly, Haskell and Robshaw need to put in a huge shift at the breakdown to disrupt New Zealand ball, Morgan needs to get England some go-forward, Burns needs to stand flat enough, Eastmond has to create opportunities for Tuilagi to bend the line, and the back three need to come up with a bit of magic on the counter-attack. So, England do have a small chance, but the more likely result is New Zealand by 14
Below, footage from the last meeting between these two teams: