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All black for England?

By Bryn Palmer

Keven Mealamu, watched by Brad Thorn, tackles Wales wing Shane Williams
New Zealand have been ruthlessly efficient on their tour so far
One by one the All Blacks dutifully sauntered in, each repeating different versions of the same mantra.

"England will be desperate to show they are a good rugby team," declared captain Richie McCaw.

"We are not taking them lightly," insisted scrum-half Jimmy Cowan.

"A week can be plenty of time in rugby," noted centre Conrad Smith, recalling how New Zealand responded to a 34-19 humbling by Australia in Sydney in late July by thrashing the Wallabies 39-10 the following week in Auckland.

Not withstanding the innate professionalism coursing through the tourists' ranks, it appeared they were trying to convince themselves as much as their audience.

In attempting to ward off complacency, though, lock Ali Williams unwittingly caught the mood of Saturday's set-to at Twickenham.

"You have a hurt England side, under new management, who will want to prove things against an All Blacks side who have won their four Tests on tour. It is a pretty dangerous mix to be honest."

You're not wrong Ali.

The danger is writ large for Martin Johnson and his fledgling side, already reeling from a record Twickenham loss to South Africa.

Never mind recent form, closer inspection of Saturday's two line-ups is enough to make red rose supporters queasy enough.

Richie McCaw is stepping into the footsteps of some great All Black captains and great leaders around the world

All Blacks lock Ali Williams
Graham Henry's starting side has an average age of 27, with an average of 43 caps each. Seven players boast more than 50 caps, while prop Tony Woodcock will win his 49th at Twickenham.

With the exception of lock Brad Thorn, the veteran at 33, and hooker Keven Mealamu, 30, every other player is aged between 25 and 29, in the prime of their rugby lives yet young enough to still be a force come the next World Cup in New Zealand in 2011.

Only one, flanker Jerome Kaino, has fewer than 20 caps, with the starting side boasting 650 in all - McCaw the most decorated with 69 - while the starting pack (363 caps between them) is the most experienced New Zealand have ever sent out.

"I think the strengths of this team are the core, senior players, and the ability of the captain," says Williams, who swapped jerseys with Johnson after the first of his 60 caps at Twickenham in 2002, one of only three All Black defeats in England since the War.

"Richie McCaw last year and Richie McCaw this year are completely different. He is stepping into the footsteps of some great All Black captains and great leaders around the world."

Like the England team Johnson led to World Cup glory, New Zealand have tasted bitter disappointment amid a period otherwise dominated by almost constant success.

But they have recovered impressively from last year's World Cup disaster, and the loss of several key players, twice beating Australia recently after overcoming early adversity.

"The good things is that when we have had to come from behind, the senior players have made sure everyone keeps believing what they are doing, and kept their composure," noted McCaw.

"It is easy to start making more mistakes when you are under pressure. But the experiences you go through make you stronger and hopefully the leadership group continues to improve."

Johnson, as he has pointed out, has no such cavalry of "been there, done it" types to summon to the frontline.

Nov 06: Eng 20-41 NZ
Nov 05: Eng 19-23 NZ
Nov 02: Eng 31-28 NZ
Oct 99: Eng 16-30 NZ (WC)
Dec 97: Eng 26-26 NZ
Nov 93: Eng 15-9 NZ
Oct 91: Eng 12-18 NZ (WC)
Nov 83: Eng 15-9 NZ
For all the talk of England being a young side, however, the average age of the one heading out to face the All Blacks is also 27.

But in terms of Test experience, the contrast is graphic. Only Phil Vickery (67) is in the 50-cap club, only five players boast more than 20, and six are in single figures.

The concern, if you are an England supporter, is obvious.

The All Blacks, going for a second "grand slam" over the home nations in three years, are desperate to make sure their name is the first inscribed on the Hillary Shield on offer to Saturday's winners, in honour of that greatest of all New Zealanders, Sir Edmund.

More pertinently perhaps, they have yet to adorn this tour with one, definitive performance.

They have demonstrated brutal efficiency at times and not conceded a try in the last three Tests, or even a point in the second half of any of their five tour games.

They barely got out of second gear in beating Scotland, maintaining a 103-year unbeaten sequence, and had a 22nd straight win over Ireland wrapped up with half an hour to go.

Wales, at least, forced them to produce what Henry called "the best 40 minutes of rugby we have played this year" in a Test he labelled "mightily competitive".

Does anyone think Saturday's will be viewed in a similar light?

I feel there is probably another 20% there. We have been good in patches but that perfect game hasn't come yet

All Blacks scrum-half Jimmy Cowan
Not the bookmakers, who offer up to 12-1 on an England victory on Saturday compared to just 6-1 on a new record defeat (surpassing last week's 42-6 humiliation by the Springboks).

Who would have thought, when Sir Clive Woodward's team were stringing together 12 successive wins against the Tri-Nations giants from June 2000 to June 2004 - that New Zealand's latest visit to south-west London would be considered such a foregone conclusion?

Johnson, whose CV includes three wins over the All Blacks, the first as a 23-year-old in only his second Test in 1993, knows full well that only experienced, hard-bitten teams beat New Zealand.

His own side, at present, are barely out of nappies in Test terms.

And they are about to meet an All Blacks side keen to unleash their full attacking armoury before heading for the beaches back home.

"I think there is room for improvement," said Cowan, ominously, as he reflected on matters at their Kensington hotel this week.

"I feel there is probably another 20% there. We have been good in patches but that perfect game hasn't come yet. Hopefully it will happen on Saturday."

England have been warned.

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see also
Dallaglio urges England patience
26 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
Respect haka, Henry warns England
26 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
Smith back in New Zealand line-up
25 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
Cipriani axed from England team
25 Nov 08 |  English
Honeymoon over for Johnson
23 Nov 08 |  English
Johnson says defeat was 'brutal'
22 Nov 08 |  English
England 6-42 South Africa
22 Nov 08 |  English
Wales 9-29 New Zealand
22 Nov 08 |  Welsh
Ireland 3-22 New Zealand
15 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
England 14-28 Australia
15 Nov 08 |  English
Scotland 6-32 New Zealand
08 Nov 08 |  Scottish
England 39-13 Pacific Islanders
08 Nov 08 |  English

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