Our rugby experts: England haven't got a chance

By Kris Shannon, Gregor Paul, Patrick McKendry, Wynne Gray

WYNNE GRAY
Focus: England renaissance?

When the going gets a bit scrappy, the weather closes in or the field seems to shrink, how will the All Black pack cope with their rivals' predatory pace?

England are broadening their style on Stuart Lancaster's watch but know that at the very top level, sides succeed if they deny their opponents possession and frustrate them into committing crass errors of judgment.

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They have the manpower for that strategy even with a clutch of first-liners on duty back home in Blighty. They understand the sequence of demands for the strangle, arm-wrestle and kick-fest to succeed.

Their players have been through a lengthy season honing those ideas while the Super 15 sides have been mixing batter-ball and frothy adventure in their competition. Test rugby at the very top level is a mental as much as a physical grind.

England know the All Blacks want to move them about to set backs on to less nimble forward defenders; they want to create indecision in that line.

The red rose will aim to bend the NZ line up front with the momentum of setpiece possession or by using Manu Tuilagi to punch holes. England will want to use halfback Danny Care's pace to create some damage. England lost both the 2004 and 2008 series 3-0. They were undisciplined on and off the field. You sense Lancaster has a firmer grip on his men, the World Cup is in their headlights, they've beaten the All Blacks and think they can again and that is why this series intrigues.

Preferred starting XV:
Ben Smith
Israel Dagg
Conrad Smith
Ma'a Nonu
Julian Savea
Beauden Barrett
Aaron Smith
Kieran Read
Richie McCaw (c)
Jerome Kaino
Sam Whitelock
Brodie Retallick
Owen Franks
Keven Mealamu
Wyatt Crockett
Series prediction: 3-0 to All Blacks

Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty Images

GREGOR PAUL
Focus: No8s

Individual battles don't really happen as such in test football, but the contributions of the respective No8s, Kieran Read and Billy Vunipola, will best illustrate the differences between the two sides.

Vunipola, at 126kg, is a ball-carrying beast. He'll thunder up the guts and leave a trail of carnage in his wake. He'll be direct, brutal and relentless.

He makes England dangerous in the channel around the ruck. But that's the extent of his game. He doesn't get much wider than that and the faster the game is played, the less he features. His conditioning isn't there to enable him to play on the flanks. He can't support England's wide game or track, old school-style, to the corner flags. And his limitations are England's limitations. He, like his team, is a bash-it-up guy who is good for 65 minutes before he fades.

England can't damage teams in the farthest regions the way the All Blacks can. He can't go where Read goes and he can't do what Read does.

The All Blacks are all about utilising Read both as a first receiver off the ruck and as a second last receiver on the touchline. They can recycle the ball out there, keep it alive out there and score out there.

Read will be the single most influential player in the series and over three tests, will give his younger rival a masterclass in No 8 play, much like Lawrence Dallaglio did with Rodney So'oialo 11 years ago.

Preferred starting XV:
Ben Smith
Cory Jane
Conrad Smith
Ma'a Nonu
Julian Savea
Aaron Cruden
Aaron Smith
Kieran Read
Richie McCaw (c)
Liam Messam
Sam Whitelock
Brodie Retallick
Owen Franks
Dane Coles
Tony Woodcock
Prediction: New Zealand 3-0

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PATRICK McKENDRY
Focus: Transition time

Steve Hansen has a difficult balancing act to fulfil in this series. The top priority will be to win every test, as it always will be, and the All Blacks' winning streak of 14 (30 at home) will be in the back of his mind, too. However, he also has to think about the future and will want to see how three players in particular cope with test rugby.

For me, how Hansen incorporates Jerome Kaino, Beauden Barrett and Malakai Fekitoa into the scene will be the most fascinating aspect of this series against England. They are all pressing hard in different ways.

Loose forward Kaino appears back to near his best after his Japan sojourn, Barrett is in the form of his life for the Hurricanes and breathing down the returning Aaron Cruden's neck, while Fekitoa has been a revelation for the Highlanders. The centre will be putting a lot of pressure on incumbent Conrad Smith, a great result which frees up Ben Smith to remain among the outside backs.

Aaron Smith is out on his own as Hansen's best halfback, but the coach might want to see how TJ Perenara copes in a test. He has yet to make his debut - he was close in Dublin last year after being named on the reserves bench but didn't get on. Will Hansen give him a go against England or wait until the Rugby Championship or beyond?

With next year's World Cup fast approaching, it's transition time for Hansen and the All Blacks.

Preferred starting XV:
Israel Dagg
Ben Smith
Conrad Smith
Ma'a Nonu
Julian Savea
Beauden Barrett
Aaron Smith
Kieran Read
Richie McCaw (c)
Liam Messam
Sam Whitelock
Brodie Retallick
Owen Franks
Keven Mealamu
Tony Woodcock
Prediction: NZ 3-0

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KRIS SHANNON
Focus: When will it end?

Round 17 of Super Rugby looks as tasty, from a Kiwi perspective, as any in the revamped competition's history, with the Highlanders hosting the Chiefs in Dunedin and the Hurricanes welcoming the Crusaders to Wellington. The fates of the four New Zealand sides with playoff hopes will become clearer after this round, but fans have to wait four weeks to enjoy these fixtures.

With just two points separating the contenders in the New Zealand conference heading into this weekend's round 16, many supporters in this country (sorry, Blues fans) could be forgiven for counting down the days until an under-strength and over-matched England leave these shores and we can get back to some competitive rugby.

Sure, the test game holds certain allure, but once Richie McCaw leads out the All Blacks, Liam Messam leads the haka and we kick off at Eden Park, how exciting will the next 240 minutes of rugby really be?

If previous June windows are anything to go by, the answer hardly sets the pulse racing. Expect a third straight sweep and expect the All Blacks to battle, initially, for form as they face inflated public expectations they will struggle to surpass.

In the previous couple of years, this ill-timed international window has interrupted only the Chiefs' and Crusaders' procession to the playoffs. This time around, it's akin to pausing a viewing of The Godfather right before Michael Corleone settles all family business, before spending an afternoon doing the ironing and settling back in for the climax.

Preferred starting XV:
Ben Smith
Cory Jane
Conrad Smith
Ma'a Nonu
Julian Savea
Aaron Cruden
Aaron Smith
Kieran Read
Richie McCaw (c)
Liam Messam
Sam Whitelock
Brodie Retallick
Owen Franks
Keven Mealamu
Tony Woodcock
Series prediction
All Blacks 3-0.

- NZ Herald

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