Rugby: England facing true test of character against All Blacks at home

By Hugh Godwin

Mike Brown will need to keep his feet on the ground. Photo / Getty Images
Mike Brown will need to keep his feet on the ground. Photo / Getty Images

It will not have escaped the notice of Mike Brown, England's serial man-of-the-match award winner in the Six Nations Championship, and an exultant double try-scorer in Italy at the weekend, that his next assignment in the white jersey will be against the All Blacks in June.

If the Harlequins fullback can wear that winning snarl of his in the lair of the world's best, England will truly begin to believe in their World Cup chances in 2015, having finished in second place in the Six Nations for the fifth time in seven years.

On England's (northern) summer tour - three tests in Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton, plus a midweek date with the Crusaders - their aims will be victory, of course, but also to keep their game plan, pride and personnel intact.

They will be obliged to play the first test without the players from the clubs who have reached the Aviva Premiership final a week beforehand; and that might rule out Brown and his fellow Harlequins such as Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Joe Marler.

Saracens and Northampton are in pole position, so England might enter Auckland's Eden Park, with Bath's first five-eighth George Ford making his first start for his country.

After a few minutes as a substitute against Wales, when he hugged his pal Owen Farrell as he came on, and 10 more out of position in Rome, this would be Ford facing the world champions at their greatest fortress. Wow.

Brown has mixed memories of Auckland: fined and reprimanded after a night out there on England's 2008 tour, he was cast into the international wilderness and not selected for the 2011 World Cup when Delon Armitage and Ben Foden were the men in possession.

That chequered past is another country, right now. Brown is in his pomp and he epitomises England's insistence on breaking the gainline at every turn, whether by a single metre or many. The team is more than the sum of their parts, even if some of the parts remain faulty.

The defence is cohesive, daunting and dominant. In attack, the passing has lapses, and wasted overlaps are a running sore.

Most fascinatingly, if we accept Wales have to an extent been "worked out" by opponents after six years of Warren Gatland's coaching, you can bet the tactics employed by Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, will be analysed to the nth degree by the New Zealanders and others as England go through the 15 matches remaining before the World Cup at home in 2015.

The assertion last week by Lancaster's right-hand man, Andy Farrell, that England have options to keep the opposition guessing will be tested by the best. The autumn brings New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa and Australia to Twickenham.

England must not get carried away. Sponsors and supporters will flock to England and fawn around them. Happy selfies with Daniel Craig or Manchester United players are fine on a celebratory occasion.

It was precisely this time last year, after the crushing loss in Cardiff, that the captain said: "It's tough but as hard as it is to lose to Wales, we must learn from it."

England have done that, and then some. Independent

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