By Liam Napier in London
Here it is. The juncture that, one way or the other, will define an All Blacks season like no other.
In recent weeks Ian Foster has increasingly projected distance between the depths of the All Blacks struggles, their historic lows through July and August, and the salvage job that’s seen his side arrive on the grand Twickenham stage riding six successive wins.
While the height of the scrutiny and turmoil, when Foster’s tenure came to a make-or-break tipping point at Ellis Park on August 13, seems a lifetime ago in some respects, the many sharp peaks and crashes provide the lens through which this season will ultimately be judged.
Since their four losses earlier this year the All Blacks have rebuilt their squad, their coaching team by parachuting in two influential assistants, their belief and game. They now embrace a new-look front row, and have seemingly settled on Richie Mo’unga as the controller who will guide them to the World Cup. Jordie Barrett’s move from fullback to second five-eighth injects a much-needed direct, combative presence to overhaul the complexion of the backline, too.
From a team perspective many of the issues that crippled the All Blacks earlier this season – their lineout and maul defence in particular – have been amended to the point they are on the verge of becoming strengths.
Wild inconsistencies week to week, and within games - as was evident in the underwhelming 50-minute scoreless period in Edinburgh last week - leave a large element of doubt hovering over the resurrection.
The suspicion, though, as the All Blacks reinstate their largely best-available team for their final tilt of the year, is recent rotation has significantly contributed to the yet-to-convince picture.
For all their progress, the backdrop that greets the All Blacks this weekend is this: a fifth defeat would mark their worst season this century. A seventh win, with a performance in which they quell England on their sacred home patch, before 82,000, would go a long way to vindicating New Zealand Rugby’s decision to retain faith in Foster and his revamped coaching team four months ago.
With that perception poised on a knife-edge, the All Blacks need a statement to provide definitive proof they are, indeed, a team far removed from their nadir.
“The challenges of the Rugby Championship have been and gone but there’s also three trophies in the cabinet from that competition,” Foster reflected this week. “Whilst we’ve had some challenges, we’ve climbed out of that a little while ago. The trajectory has been in the right direction. We’ve taken the lessons but we like where we’re at right now.”
England at Twickenham feels like the right team at the right time for this All Blacks side.
New Zealanders inherently dislike English rugby – in the same vein they view the Australian cricket team.
Add in the scars from the 2019 World Cup semifinal defeat for the 12 All Blacks survivors in this weekend’s squad, the dearth of fixtures between these heavyweight rugby nations - this the third in past eight years - Brodie Retallick and Owen Farrell’s 100th tests, and expectations England will again confront the haka, and you can smell the spice emanating from Brick Lane’s curry mile to Twickenham’s Richmond home.
The size of that challenge, the sense of occasion it brings, the memories from Yokohama, should converge to stir the desired response from the All Blacks and ward off any thoughts of slipping into savouring summer.
“2019 is there, it’s in history,” All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock said. “We’ve had a few people walking down the street bring it up as well. We’re aware of it but this group has changed a lot since then.
“We’ve got to front up, us as a tight five. We’ve got to make sure we stop their strengths; their scrum, rolling maul. It always starts and finishes with us. If we do that, we allow our team to play.”
Much of the pre-match focus has centred on 2019 but it’s worth remembering that last meeting was England’s first win against the All Blacks since 2012 when the destructive Manu Tuilagi, who now marks Rieko Ioane in a headline midfield match-up, inspired a rare Twickenham triumph in his pomp.
Aaron Smith has featured in all seven tests against England, six of those won by the All Blacks, in the decade since. That recent record, and their 22 per cent historical success rate, is why Eddie Jones described the All Blacks as England’s Everest.
“2012 was a shit show,” Smith recalled. “But that also set us up for the next five years where we played them at Twickenham in 2013 and got a tight win. They toured New Zealand in 2014 and we were able to get three wins there; 2018 was a good win on a wet night which was tough and 2019, we all remember that.”
While their 2019 success paints the blueprint for England, with their selection of twin No 8s Sam Simmonds and Billy Vunipola pointing to the power game they will again attempt to impose on the All Blacks, the previous test is perhaps more relevant, given the venue, for expectations this weekend.
Four years ago, the last All Blacks and England test at Twickenham came down to the tense final throes as now-injured lock Courtney Lawes was eventually ruled offside after charging down TJ Perenara’s box kick. Sam Underhill gathered the ball and stepped a scrambling Beauden Barrett, only for his match-winning try to be scrubbed out – much to the disdain of locals.
“It was a really good call, good eyes from the ref to see he was offside when he charged my kick and save Baz a conversation after Underhill ended up going inside out,” Perenara said of that 16-15 escape this week.
“Some of these test matches go down to big plays like that. I’ve been on the wrong end of some of those plays too. We were fortunate that day.”
Returning to that same battleground to finish this year’s turbulent campaign, the All Blacks would gladly take another one-point victory that alters their season complexion.