Chris Rattue 's Opinion

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: England Lite a poor match for ABs

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Despite injuries and shaky form, the All Blacks stack up well against Woodward’s ‘biggest cock-up’ tourists.

England will front a different side on Saturday from the one that faced the All Blacks at the end of last year. Photo / Getty Images
England will front a different side on Saturday from the one that faced the All Blacks at the end of last year. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks 2014-style are the nearest thing to a shambles when compared to the glories of last year. But any problems facing coach Steve Hansen have hardly got a look in because the public perceives this England team as a cross between a B-grade mystery and a joke.

Nobody should be fooled by Sir Clive Woodward's claim that this tour is the "biggest cock-up" since the 1998 'tour from hell'. The World Cup-winning coach sounded as if he'd found a lovely chance to write himself out of culpability, leaving the evil itinerary to carry the load. Deep into the professional era, no England team could be bad enough to lose 76-0 in Australia (and that was the first game of that tour, it might be pointed out to Woodward).

Watch video: All Blacks wary of England

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But what we are faced with here still isn't good. There should be high anticipation for Saturday's test at Eden Park, including recalling that while England don't have many victories over the All Blacks, they are more than capable of the pop-up shock, including on these shores. Instead, the impression is that England have sent an oversized reconnaissance force that will be strengthened by a few crack troops later on.

And the cavalry - available for the second and third tests - won't be in best shape. A long plane flight is hardly the ideal recovery from what is described as a brutal English premiership final. More importantly, the staggered approach won't promote tactical cohesion.

Shambles might be too strong a word for the All Blacks, but the 2013 history-makers have not exactly roared out of the blocks in the Super 15. The All Blacks are actually creaking at a few of their seams, although they do have one ever-reliable factor tailor-made for any potential crisis. For the umpteenth time in his career, Richie McCaw will steel the troops by his own example and mere presence. McCaw isn't the player he once was because he no longer carries the ball with the same vigour. But his amazing warrior spirit and mana survive.

Watch video: Jerome Kaino back in black

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On form/fitness, Charlie Faumuina, Jerome Kaino, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith could start this test ahead of Owen Franks, Kieran Read, Aaron Cruden, Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg. Put it this way: the amazing 2013 machine is making the odd grinding noise.

If England were firing from the get-go they would have stood a rough outside chance. Considering the heights of 2013, Hansen has a surprising number of conundrums to solve.

On the plus side, the All Blacks have an outstanding locking combo in Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, backed up by rising skyscraper Dominic Bird and the turbo charged Patrick Tuipulotu. There are specks of fitness and form elsewhere - at the top of the pile is the effervescent halfback Aaron Smith and utility Ben Smith from the thick of the Highlanders' shock revival.

Watch video: Meet the new All Blacks

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But there are cracks. Hooker Keven Mealamu is clinging on, by necessity. Front row rock Owen Franks has operated from the Crusaders' bench of late. Tony Woodcock is harder than most to judge on Super 15 form, but he might be under an injury cloud, while back-up Wyatt Crockett has also been used as a substitute by the Crusaders. Kieran Read has had a messy season and was down on his best after returning from injury and illness this weekend. Cruden is in seriously troubled waters. Ma'a Nonu still runs hot and cold. Conrad Smith's mind is still sharp but the body may not be so willing.

Israel Dagg is springing to life and his punting is a major weapon, but despite the brilliant matchsaving tackle against the Highlanders, his one-on-one defence is shaky. Like Woodcock, Julian Savea was injured at Eden Park on Saturday night. The exciting outside back power option Charles Piutau is sidelined.

Trouble is, the genuine shambles is England. Pinning the blame might be difficult, but the end result - turning up in dribs and drabs for a major test series - is an insult. Yet an indication of the depths to which rugby expectations have fallen in this regard is the lack of sustained outcry over the punters being sold this dud.

England Lite. The record books. Hansen's calm authority and experience. Richie McCaw ... and Richie McCaw again. The confidence under pressure derived from last year's history-making exploits. It's hard to see anything else but one-way traffic, road-train style.

- NZ Herald

Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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