England critics wide of the mark: Steve Hansen
June 2, 2014
Stuart Lancaster has developed a strong culture within his squad, Steve Hansen acknowledges © Getty Images
England have made greater strides than any team in international rugby since Rugby World Cup 2011 and will provide a searching test of the All Blacks in their three-Test series, Steve Hansen said.
All Blacks Squad
Hansen unveiled an experienced 31-man squad containing few surprises for the series that kicks off at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday, including uncapped Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Tuipulotu and TJ Perenara, while omitting Steven Luatua to recall Jerome Kaino and Victor Vito.
But he is unsettled by the thrust of media reports since England's initial squad arrived in New Zealand last week missing a number of first-choice players. Several players are injured while even more were unavailable for the first Test at Eden Park because of their commitments in the Aviva Premiership final between Northampton Saints and Saracens on Saturday.
Former England coach Sir Clive Woodward has said the series lacks integrity, describing it as "the biggest cock-up since the 'Tour from Hell' in 1998", while former All Blacks captain Taine Randell wrote off the tourists in a newspaper column for Fairfax Media as a "B-grade team who should get slaughtered".
But Hansen says the progress made by world No.4-ranked England since Stuart Lancaster took over in the wake of a poor 2011 World Cup campaign should be acknowledged. They are the only team to beat the All Blacks in their past 35 Tests, toppling them at Twickenham in December 2012.
"England have been the most improved side in world rugby in the last two years," Hansen said when announcing his All Blacks squad. "Stuart Lancaster has built depth in his side and a strong culture, so they will be a formidable opponent. Those who think England will be fielding a weak side in the first Test are completely underestimating the quality of depth in the England squad."
Hansen says he will look for improvements across the board from his team through the series, which comprises Tests in Auckland, Dunedin (June 14) and Hamilton (June 21).