New Zealand v England: Areas and head-to-heads that could dictate first Test

Ben Earl up against Ardie Savea will be one of many compelling match-ups during the first Test
©Photo by Michael Steele - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

Get the alarm set, the kettle boiled and your place on the sofa reserved.

England are back in New Zealand, and Steve Borthwick’s side seem more bullish than usual ahead of their two-Test series against the All Blacks.

“What a great time for us to put our hands up and show what the English rugby team is about,” said captain Jamie George as he and his teammates gear up for their opener in Dunedin.

There is a sense that England feel confident in their processes, determined not to show the three-time world champions too much respect in their own backyard.

Speaking of the hosts, this will be New Zealand’s first match under new head coach Scott Robertson and the All Blacks haven’t had much time to prepare for the visit of Borthwick’s fired-up charges.

So over the next fortnight, could this vibrant and spirited England side take another serious step in their development?

If they are to conquer New Zealand, these might be the key areas…

1. Show no fear - England must not get caught up in the aura of the All Blacks and let it intimidate them.

Whilst it might not be the same type of All Blacks side they faced a decade ago (England losing that series 3-0), it is still New Zealand in New Zealand.

These young England players must play to their potential and shut out the 30,000 screaming Kiwis whilst the likes of George and the senior members of the squad need to stand up and set an example.

This side needs to focus on playing their own game as we saw in Japan last month as well as in the Six Nations against France and Ireland.

2. Win the breakdown - With both back-rows having multiple threats at the breakdown, England need to utilise Ben Earl and Sam Underhill to get at New Zealand, before unleashing Tom Curry off the bench.

Even if the exceptional trio of Earl, Underhill and Chandler Cunningham-South do not get their desired turnovers, slowing the ball down is a must if England are to secure just their third win over New Zealand on All Blacks soil.

Allowing players such as Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane and Mark Tele’a quick ball is asking a lot of your defence, no matter how confident England are in this Felix Jones set-up.

3. Be clinical - To beat New Zealand, you must take your chances when they are on offer. Everybody knows this and I don’t think that changes even if the All Blacks are entering a new era. They can score from anywhere at any time.

If England can carry on from what we saw against Japan in how clinical they were, they can really hurt their hosts. The back three of George Furbank, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Tommy Freeman can rival New Zealand’s (Stephen Perofeta, Sevu Reece and Tele’a) in their ability to score tries and counter-attack. England need to give their weapons the chance to do this.

Key Match-Ups

Ardie Savea vs Ben Earl  

The reigning World Player of the Year against who - despite not winning the award - was the best player in this year’s Six Nations.

Two loose forwards who are both electric and both have great footwork and acceleration. They use this effectively to beat defenders, with the Kiwi probably the stronger of the two but in a foot race, you would fancy the Englishman.

Then, of course, both are huge threats for turnovers at the breakdown. It wouldn’t surprise me if either Savea or Earl claimed the Player of the Match on Saturday, with the All Blacks vice-captain determined to banish the memories of their semi-final defeat against England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Damian McKenzie vs Marcus Smith

Two men who are at similar points in their Test careers. Two men who have produced moments on the Test stage but both have waited for an opportunity like this to stamp their authority on the 10 shirt.

McKenzie and Smith are known for their running games and flair, with the ability to beat a man and make a break for themselves.

The latter did exactly this in England’s recent 52-17 win over Japan in Tokyo but in Dunedin, the narrative of the contest might be shaped by whoever can control the game for their side.

Smith, who will be winning his 34th cap on Saturday, has spoken about not concentrating too much on his own performance. Instead, he has emphasised being “part of a series-winning team in New Zealand” that would “mean the world” to him.

However, if the 25-year-old can pull the strings and get one over his opposite number McKenzie, it only enhances Smith’s position to become England’s unquestionable first-choice fly-half.

Codie Taylor vs Jamie George

Two of the more experienced men with 175 caps between them. Taylor and George are tasked with crucial roles in the set-piece and whoever can give their side a base to attack off at lineout and scrum time, could give their team the upper hand.

George will look to lead by example and navigate England through the occasion having won in New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions back in 2017.

Maro Itoje was also part of that triumphant 2nd Test side, but George also remembers the 1st Test in Auckland where the Lions were left to play catch-up.

“I have regrets from that game,” George said. “We can’t sit back and wait because, if we do, we’ll be behind our poles 20 points down trying to create some sort of comeback.

“The challenge we’ve laid down is that we play at our physicality and our intensity. We’ll know whether we’re there or not within the first few ­minutes after kick-off.”

It is those experiences which I believe will be key for England.

Mark Tele’a vs Immanuel Feyi-Waboso

A physical battle between two wingers is not something you always look at but both of these flyers always seem to make metres when they have no right to whether that be in contact or with footwork and speed.

Tele’a, who was outstanding for New Zealand at the World Cup, could give Feyi-Waboso a real taste of what it is like at the top level but given that the Exeter man may have gone under the radar of the All Blacks, he could explode on the international stage.

“He’s got absolute ­superpowers in his body that I would love to have,” George said of the 21-year-old.

Feyi-Waboso can be a real difference-maker for England and really hurt the Kiwis. However, he must be careful in his blitz defence not to get caught out in giving Tele’a too much space or it could be a long night.