Nightmare in the Garden of Eden?
Tom Hamilton in Auckland
June 6, 2014
It's that time of the rugby calendar - it's England against New Zealand © Getty Images
"The greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity" has been the mantra in the England camp as Stuart Lancaster attempted to hammer home the positives of being huge underdogs for Saturday's opening Test against the All Blacks.
Preparations for both of the sides have been hampered this week. The All Blacks lost two of their star players in Kieran Read and Julian Savea, but such is the pool of talent at their disposal, they were able to seamlessly bring in two of their World Cup-winners. For England, the local New Zealand media welcomed their call to start Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond at 10 and 12 respectively as a decision to start two second-choice club players.
It was a harsh portrayal and one not accounting for Burns and Eastmond's impressive individual skillset but it did highlight the gulf in experience between the two sides. But that is something that could yet work in England's advantage.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was quick to point out the vast improvement and renaissance England have experienced over the past two years, even admitting that they did some part of the game better than the Kiwis.
For those All Blacks players who faced the media on Thursday, they were quick to name their opponents after Brodie Retallick's gaffe earlier in the week - it was hard to avoid visions of the All Blacks playing a giant game of 'Guess Who?' in their team room with the Englishmen's faces on various cards.
So much has been done on this tour to repair their damaged reputation after the two previous calamitous trips to these Isles that the All Blacks have been impressed by the English approach. All Black great Bryan Williams said on Friday Lancaster was "as close to a New Zealander as an Englishman could get", praise indeed.
But the challenge awaiting England is vast and despite praise and tales of unpredictability, the All Blacks go into Saturday's Test as overwhelming favourites. They have not lost at Eden Park in 20 years and the last time they tasted defeat as a team was at Twickenham back in 2012.
The All Blacks have named a team consisting of 968 caps with the starting line-up boasting an impressive 779 - a tally of 492 more than England's offerings. Despite Savea's absence, the backline has a settled feel and Ma'a Nonu's battle with Eastmond could go a fair way to deciding who wins the all important gainline battle. In the pack, Richie McCaw wins his 125th cap while Kaino gets the nod at No.8 in Read's absence. Hansen has gone for Dane Coles over Keven Mealamu.
It is worth keeping an eye on the All Blacks' bench. The fantastic Malakai Fekitoa will probably get a shot at some stage to make his Test debut and after seeing the form he has been in for the Highlanders in Super Rugby, England will need to leave something in the tank to stop him in his tracks.
England retain just six players from the team that started their final game in the Six Nations but in adversity comes opportunity, as Lancaster has hammered home this week. England will base much of the game plan around the set piece with much of the emphasis revolving around stability in the lineout. Rob Webber's recovery from a knee injury has proved timely and Geoff Parling's pick ahead of Dave Attwood to start the match suggests he will carry the lineout calling can for 50 or so minutes before allowing Attwood to enter the fray with his physicality.
England's preparations in the backs were hampered by Danny Care's withdrawal to what Andy Farrell described as a "hilarious" incident, something which was soon dampened by the realisation it was going to see Care out of the Test. Ben Youngs starts in Care's place while Chris Pennell and Joe Gray could make their Test debuts from the bench where Danny Cipriani also features.
Stats and Trivia:
What they have said:
"There are teams out there who are well and truly capable of beating us, so we have to make sure we've done all the homework we need to do" - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen
"There'll be no excuses because the side we've got is an experienced side and a good side" - England's Stuart Lancaster
England will be in with a shout at half-time but the fresh legs on New Zealand's bench will see them win by 12 to 15 points.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.