Bring on the All Blacks! Crack open the champagne! Prepare to face the haka!
The most reassuring thing for supporters contemplating a gold-dust fixture against New Zealand in Yokohama on Saturday is that not one single England player spoke of the encounter in those awed, reverential, over-excitable terms. A World Cup semi-final has its own aura. It is no place for chancers. It has no need of an extra polish. At this stage of a long tournament, the opposition is irrelevant in terms of reputation, kudos or past history.
The fact that eight of this England squad have tasted victory over New Zealand, featuring in the 38-21 win at Twickenham in 2012 sounds good but, in truth, as with those who did well in New Zealand for the Lions, it counts for little. Every single one of the Irish squad had had a similar upbeat experience. They even had the Fields of Athenry drown out the Kapa o pango haka. And then the stark reality hit home. It is no point having notches on the belt or winning the singing. When will people get it into their heads that the haka is not designed to intimidate the opposition no matter what the chilling lyrics might suggest. It is all about the group, the collective, the coming together, the mateship, the bonding, the preparing for battle as one, invoking the warrior spirit, feeling good about yourself alongside those you trust and love. That is what it means to New Zealand – performing as a team.
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And that is what England also have without the need to indulge in a pre-match song and dance. The manner of their win over the Wallabies was proof incarnate of that. It was a hard-headed, cussed and dog-fight victory, holding nerve when Australia came back to within a point, confident that the one-for-all mantra would prevail. They had trust in each other, faith too that it would come right. And it did. England cricket showed similar resolve when the going got tough in the summer. England and the All Blacks trade on equal terms in that regard. The team is the thing, the only thing.
There is a soulful side to rugby that is often downplayed. In the late eighties, I commissioned New Zealand World Cup-winning captain, scrum-half David Kirk, to write a piece about what it meant to be an All Black. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Kirk was not short on grey matter so he reflected on the brief given to him… and filed a poem. His successor, Buck Shelford, who more than anyone turned the haka into the bristling ritual that it is today, was the polar opposite, a ferocious presence, all fury and in-your-face.
Welcome to the modern-day All Blacks, the perfect symmetry of grunt and grace. Their skill level is exceptional but so too is their attitude, their mana. Before they sprinkle magic dust on the field of play with a slicing run from Beauden Barrett, a deft pass from Richie Mo'unga or a snipe from two-try scrum-half, Aaron Smith, they lay the foundations through graft and grit, getting their hands dirty and calloused as if they were digging roads, McAlpine's Fusilers dressed in black and studs sharpened for the job in hand.
That is what England first and foremost have to contend with on Saturday. Not the silver fern. Or past records. A team that is on-point from one to 15. Just as England themselves are these days. Their record-equalling win over Australia in Oita was not a thing of staggering beauty, all flow and finesse as the scoreboard (40-16) might suggest. England had only 36 per cent possession on the night. If New Zealand have 64 per cent of ball with which to play, then you might think it could be a hands-over-the-eyes evening for England supporters.
But you would be wrong. Much as Eddie Jones upbraided journalists for depicting the decision to play George Ford from the bench as one of him being 'dropped,' inviting the media to get with the zeitgeist of the modern game in which the squad, not the starting XV, is the paramount concern, so too can the use of stats be misleading. The Wallabies' biggest failing was that they did not adapt, in fact, they refused to adapt with coach, Michael Cheika, stating that 'kick-and-defend game,' was not the 'Aussie way.' Cheika went on to say: 'Call me naïve….'
That is exactly what he was. And that is precisely what neither Jones or Steve Hansen is. The two coaches have a close relationship, respectful of the diligence with which they both approach the job. But hard work only takes you so far. It is also about being constantly on the move, being both reactive as well as proactive. Compare that approach with that of Joe Schmidt in Ireland. 11 months ago the New Zealander was cock of the coaching walk with victory over the All Blacks at the apex. Yet it has all gone horribly wrong, Ireland being exposed by New Zealand at the Tokyo Stadium. From world's number one side to humiliated also-rans, stuck in a Schmidt-constructed time-warp, rigid and inflexible.
England have the will as well as the wit to prevail. In Jones, they trust, to detect minute chinks in the All Black armour. In each other, they trust, to find a way, any way.
England will have to be at their absolute best to prevail. Only then might they reach for the champagne.