England vs All Blacks Preview – Back-row battles, 2019 and more

New Zealand haven't played New Zealand since the 2019 Rugby World Cup
©INPHO/Billy Stickland

With England hosting the All Blacks in the Autumn Nations Series later on today, TRU’s Joe Harvey has previewed the game between two of international rugby’s heavyweights.

It is no secret that matchups between these two teams are a rarity, the last time that England came toe-to-toe with New Zealand all the way back in 2019 in a Rugby World Cup semi-final.

With a win that day, Eddie Jones’ England picked up just an eighth ever win over the fabled black jersey and ending Steve Hansen’s tenure as head coach and making way for Ian Foster to take the reins.

England’s Owen Farrell and New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick will earn their 100th caps for their country’s in this matchup, there will be intrigue in the back-row and all adding up to one of those fixtures that you circle in the calendar.

Memories of 2019

In Yokohama, England smothered the All Blacks. Allowing the two-time World Cup winners little to no time on the ball and kicking astutely for the full 80 minutes, England booked themselves a place in the final thanks to their 19-7 win.

With that result standing strong in the memory, in part thanks to the impressive nature in which England went around their business but also primarily because it is the last time the sides played, there are some in the group that will be able to harness the memory of that day.

“The Yokohama game, they were a different team,” Eddie Jones said. “They played differently than they do now. It’s mire about our players understanding what it takes to beat New Zealand.

“As the results show - 22 per cent [England’s winning percentage vs New Zealand] history doesn’t lie. It takes a massive effort to beat New Zealand, our players understand that. We’re going to go after them.”

That loss has been a three year hangover for New Zealand. Since Japan the side may have picked up three Rugby Championship titles but have hardly been the feared side that they were.

Losses this year to Argentina and South Africa showed exactly how hot and cold the side can be, and this autumn have laboured to wins over Japan and Scotland.

“The challenges of the Rugby Championship have been and gone,” Ian Foster said, “but there’s also three trophies in the cabinet from that same competition.

"When you look at the Freedom Cup and the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe, while we have had some challenges, I think we’ve climbed out of that a little while ago, so the trajectory has been in the right direction. We’ve taken the lessons, but we’re where we’re at right now.”

Key battle: the back-row

Now this is obviously always a key battle. But, maybe more than ever, whichever back-row gains the ascendency on Saturday evening will surely end the game as the winners. England have reintroduced Billy Vunipola to the back-row, Maro Itoje moving to lock forward and Sam Simmonds shifting to blindside.

It is a significant change by Jones, who for much of the past month has spoken about needing three lineout jumpers on the field at all times. Whether or not that is the Australian blowing smoke will be seen, the 62-year-old’s mind games well known to the rugby world.

In stark contrast, Foster has put lock forward Scott Barrett at blindside flanker. As ever, this is a game of chess, each coach looking to bait the other into some sort of fatal error and leave the king unguarded.

“Barrett is one of those locks who can play six,” Jones said. “That is probably his preferred position, so that is probably not a surprise against us.

“We want our back-row to play to their strengths. Curry is approaching his best. Against Japan he was a handful for them at the breakdown, so he has got a task there.

“Sam Simmonds has that role at six to fill in, basically; to carry, to support and also to provide contest at the breakdown, then Billy is our gain line guy.”

A colossal clash

At every Test match, there is a sense of occasion. It does not matter if that is Slovenia against Poland or Saturday’s matchup between England and New Zealand. Perhaps it is the stage that offers more formality, Twickenham with all of its hospitality boxes, as well as the pomp and ceremony which shrouds the white jersey.

Even so, it doesn’t distract from the world’s best doing battle. A rarity, yes, but now that it has come about, all you can think about.

“It’s been a rarity,” Foster said. “I don’t know why, but it just seems to have been and it makes it more special. It’s a great stadium, we love being here but the draw over a cycle seems to throw up those irregular sort of things. And for some reason, it’s been England.

“The fact that our last game was at a World Cup, there’s a lot of talking points for everyone. But you know, quite frankly, it’s a one-off game for us. It’s the end of a three-game programme and the opportunity to test ourselves against slightly different opponents.”

Already the stories of 2019 have been told. Jones cutting a kiwi fruit in half with a samurai sword, England’s approaching of the Haka in a V formation and that performance. It’s a new story now, even if some of the players are the same and Jones is expecting nothing short of the best from the All Blacks.

“We expect the best version of New Zealand,” Jones said. “It’s their last game of the tour, they want to finish the tour well, it’s been a tough old year for them. They’ve got a lot of criticism, ended up winning the Rugby Championship, so they did well and it’s how much they can get their mind on the job.

“But the history of New Zealand is that one they’ve been beaten by someone, they want to right that and this is obviously the next opportunity they’ve got to put the pictures of being with the family on the beach, water-skiing, all those beautiful things in New Zealand out of their heads. Sometimes it can be hard, but they’re a good enough team to do that.”

England starting XV: Freddie Steward; Jack Nowell, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (C), Jonny May; Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet; Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola

Replacements: Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Will Stuart, David Ribbans, Jack Willis, Ben Youngs, Guy Porter, Henry Slade

New Zealand starting XV: Beauden Barrett; Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke; Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ethan de Groot, Codie Taylor, Tyrel Lomax, Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock (C), Scott Barrett, Dalton Papali’i, Ardie Savea

Replacements: Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Bower, Nepo Laulala, Shannon Frizell, Hoskins Sotutu, TJ Perenara, David Havili, Anton Lienert-Brown