New Zealand close in on historic grand slam
November 26, 2008
This weekend's clash will be the first contest for the Hillary Shield - named in honour of mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary © Getty Images
The All Blacks travel to Twickenham this weekend knowing victory over an under-fire England side will see them complete an historic grand slam tour of the northern hemisphere.
This weekend's game will be the first contest for the recently-unveiled Hillary Shield, named after the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary famed for conquering Everest, and all the signs are that Martin Johnson's side will have to conjure a similar effort if they are to derail the All Blacks.
England may have opened their campaign with victory over the Islanders earlier this month but cracks appeared in the defeat against Australia and these were magnified when they succumbed to a record defeat at the hands of South Africa last weekend.
By contrast, New Zealand have grown in confidence since kicking off their six-match tour with a come-from-behind victory over Australia in Hong Kong. In Scotland, Ireland and then Wales the masses gathered, whipped up by media expectation, hoping to witness a rare or never-before-seen victory over the southern hemisphere giants - and each time the All Blacks responded with clinical displays to silence their doubters.
Perhaps most notably for England, the tourists appear to be saving their best for last with last week's performance to overhaul a determined Wales pinpointed by coach Graham Henry as his side's 'best rugby' of the year - an impressive statement when that year has seen them claim Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup glory.
Johnson has resisted making wholesale changes, explaining his thinking as, "other options, other players" when he announced his selection earlier this week. Instead he has offered the majority of his players a shot at redemption. However that opportunity was not afforded to fly-half Danny Cipriani who appears to have paid the price for two indifferent performances.
The flashes of brilliance he has shown in the last three weeks appear did not save him from the chop but he will have a chance to impress from the replacements bench. Instead Toby Flood will line up at No.10 and make his first start since England's second Test against New Zealand in the summer.
Perhaps sensing the reaction that has since followed, Johnson refused to point the finger at the Wasps fly-half. "We are picking the team for this game we think has the best chance of winning. In the view of the whole thing, every game we play we pick the team accordingly. Danny is on the bench and is still involved.
"All these games are a squad effort. He has a role to play this week, just not a starting role. Coming off the bench these guys have an important role, they are on the field at the end of the game, he is on the bench and so are a number of other good players."
Elsewhere inside-centre Riki Flutey has recovered from a hamstring problem and will line up against the country of his birth, but influential prop Andrew Sheridan has failed to recover from a neck injury sustained against Australia. Wasps prop Tim Payne will continue to deputise in his absence.
London Irish lock Nick Kennedy also returns to the fray, taking the place of the injured Tom Palmer and in perhaps a surprising move Bath skipper Michael Lipman takes over from Tom Rees on the open-side flank. Rees, who has been widely regarded as a big plus for England this autumn, must make do with a place on the bench. There he will be joined by centre Dan Hipkiss who is set for his first taste of action this month.
"We are all disappointed with the way we played. If you let the All Blacks play they will look very good, we have got to stop them playing, we have been too easy to score against. We need to make it harder, we need to be in that game with 15 minutes to go. It's about us bouncing back. You lose games in sport."
All Blacks coach Graham Henry has opted to recall centre Conrad Smith for this weekend's clash in the only change to the side that scored a come-from-behind victory against Wales at the Millennium Stadium last weekend.
Smith, omitted from the All Blacks side which thumped Wales 29-9 at the weekend, will start at outside centre in place of Richard Kahui, who drops out of the squad. Henry said it had been an incredibly special tour of Hong Kong, Ireland and the United Kingdom for the 2008 All Blacks and, after 14 Tests this year, the team was keen to end the tour - and the year - on a high.
"After England's loss to South Africa on the weekend we know that the English will come out and throw everything at us. But the All Blacks are relishing the challenge and we are looking forward to the Test," he said.
The All Blacks' challenge will be anchored by skipper Richie McCaw, strangely passed over at this year's IRB Awards, and fly-half Dan Carter who has yet to taste defeat against England in six matches.
The haka will also garner a little more attention than normal this weekend after the 'stand-off' in Cardiff last weekend and in between weighing in on a range of issues this week Henry urged England not to tread a similar path to the Welsh.
"The Welsh thought that was the best way to respond, I just wanted to know when the game was going to start," said Henry. "It took someone with common sense, the All Blacks captain, to get things going. We don't need that every week. I hope a copycat situation doesn't occur. We've been there, it was interesting at the time but it's time to move on and be more sensible."
Time will tell if England will heed that warning but with question marks over their recent performances you can rest assured Johnson will demand his side do their talking after the whistle rather than before it.
New Zealand go into the game as strong favourites with many predicting a damage limitation exercise for England. But we must remember that this new-look England side has only been together for five weeks and in New Zealand they face another well-oiled southern hemisphere rugby machine that has honed its game since the beginning of the summer.
A humiliation on the scale of last weekend is highly unlikely but a vast improvement will be required from the hosts if they are to prevent the 2008 All Blacks joining their illustrious counterparts from 1978 and 2005 in the record books.
Riki Flutey v Ma'a Nonu
Inside centre Flutey lines up against his former countrymen with two major challenges - bring some ruthlessness to England's struggling attack and stop his opposite number. Nonu's powerful running destroyed England in the summer Tests and he will target the channel between Flutey and Toby Flood.
Michael Lipman v Richie McCaw
They locked horns in 1999 when Lipman was playing for Australia Under-19s. Flanker Lipman came out on top that day will need a repeat performance if England are to secure the quick ball they crave. Lipman has vowed to fill the leadership void - but he is up against the best in the business.
Toby Flood v Dan Carter
Flood has been charged with providing the spark to England's misfiring attacking system. Despite bossing posessions over the last fortnight, England have scored just one try and conceded six. That must improve - because the imperious Carter averages 20 points a game against England.
England: D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), R Flutey (Wasps), U Monye (Harlequins); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), N Kennedy (London Irish), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), M Stevens (Bath), T Croft (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps), H Ellis (Leicester), D Cipriani (Wasps), D Hipkiss (Leicester)
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina, Josevata Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Neemia Tialata, Brad Thorn, Ali Williams, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (c), Rodney So'oialo
Replacements: Hikawera Elliot, John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Kieran Read, Piri Weepu, Stephen Donald, Isaia Toeava
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assitant Referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), George Clancy (Ireland)
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