Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: No truth to fading All Blacks

A perception that a younger England is better placed than NZ for next year’s World Cup doesn’t hold water, writes Gregor Paul.

Ben Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ben Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There is, as England will testify, a gap between them and the All Blacks.

They will be tempted to believe it's not that big and more tempted, again, to believe that in 15 months at the World Cup, it won't be there at all.

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Maybe that's how things will play out and the day of reckoning will come at Twickenham on November 3 in the World Cup final.


View: Gallery - All Blacks v England

That's not beyond the realm of possibility by any means. It's probably even a half-decent chance of happening if England can negotiate their way through an intense pool that contains Australia and Wales and as long as the All Blacks can overcome the lack of intensity in their group to be at their sharpest in the knockout rounds.

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England versus the All Blacks in next year's World Cup final - hosts versus defending champions - is the dream ticket for organisers and a few gamblers will no doubt be keen to take an early punt on the outcome.

But which way to go? England at Twickers are especially hard to beat. Home ground advantage is almost reason enough to believe in them.

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Then, as they have hinted, they believe they have more upside than the All Blacks. England, after all, are a side full of young men - players with many good years yet.

Owen Farrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Manu Tuilagi, Marland Yarde, Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are going to be at their peak in 2019.

The average age of the side that started last night was only 24.8. The average number of caps was 25.

Give them another 15 months and they might be close to the optimum balance between age and experience. Young legs with old heads - sounds about perfect.

What about the All Blacks in 15 months? It's growing popular to hammer this idea they are too old and without the means to improve between now and the World Cup.

The facts are a little different. The average age of the starting team last night was 27.4 and the average number of caps was 50. Richie McCaw missed a tackle last week and that appears to be the basis for branding the All Blacks as clinging to a group who are past it.

That idea is hard to buy. The All Blacks have youth where they need it and age where they want it. When the test in Dunedin was in full flow, did anyone think the All Blacks were old and slow?

The back three options - Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane, Charles Piutau and Israel Dagg - have an average age of 26 and any combination, both now and at the World Cup, will not lack pace, agility and footballing skills.

The All Blacks tight five is curiously young and yet already holding their own against the best. In another year, how good could Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick be?

"They could be the two best locks in the world at some stage," reckons All Black coach Steve Hansen.

Age isn't a problem at nine and 10. The All Blacks have young men there and, crucially at first five-eighths at least, they have three with experience.

The emergence of Malakai Fekitoa and the imminent return of Sonny Bill Williams creates midfield options should Ma'a Nonu and/or Conrad Smith suddenly fade - of which there is no sign - and Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read and Liam Messam could be at this game for years yet.

As for McCaw ... surely he and Hansen have earned the right to be trusted. If, and it is a big if, McCaw doesn't feel he's still up to it, he'll say. He won't hang on for selfish reasons. It's not his style and, given his commitment and heroics over the years, can anyone doubt his honesty and integrity?

Hansen is loyal but not blindly loyal. He has an intuitive feel for how his athletes are tracking and won't shirk the hard calls. One mistake the All Blacks will not make is clinging on to players too long.

They have spent the past two years building their triple threat game and it's that ability to adapt to any surface, any opponent and any occasion that sets New Zealand apart.

It's logical to wonder whether England, in another 15 months, will have advanced their ability to play that bit wider and faster as coach Stuart Lancaster so clearly desires.

They got so far with high-tempo, inventive rugby in Dunedin but, when the heat was really on, their decision-making and skill execution let them down.

It wasn't by much, but a little inaccuracy is all it takes to derail momentum at the highest level. A dipping pass or a run at an angle that isn't quite right ... that's curtains for continuity.

Their fitness wasn't quite there to cope with the pace and intensity and, while Lancaster labelled their inexperience as the root cause of some of their tactical thinking, fatigue may have been the real reason they didn't make great decisions at times.

So get fitter. Easy enough, surely? Sharpen the skills, hone the game plan and England can start next year as favourites to win their own tournament.

It's not that simple. Firstly, mastering pass-and-catch, high-tempo rugby takes an age. Effective execution is based on a mix of structure and instinct. The more phases that develop, the more reliant teams become on players to make instant decisions and play what they see.

This comes easily to the All Blacks because pass and catch is the essence of all rugby played in New Zealand. Players here do it - on rugby fields, in parks, in back yards, beaches and street corners - from the age of five.

Look at the way the All Blacks finished their opportunities in Dunedin. Aaron Cruden saw the half-gap and accelerated, Savea held his depth knowing the pass would come and Ben Smith ran the perfect support line. They made it look easy, as Conrad Smith did when he ran a superb angle to break the line and then throw a huge pass to Nonu for the third try.

It looks easy only because there are years of development in these players on this theme. Then there is their physical conditioning. They are built to be lean yet explosive, powerful yet aerobic.

It's not a quick fix job and England, in 15 months, might have home advantage to lean on as their only means of improvement.

What does Hansen think?

"I haven't thought about that too much, to be fair. I have thought a lot about how far away we are from being the side we want to be and I think there are four or five steps we can take to get back to where we can be."

- Herald on Sunday

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