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England v NZ: Tom Croft can rule the line-out

Clockwise from top left: Steve Thompson, Tom Croft, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Keven Mealamu, Tom Palmer and Courtney Lawes
England hooker Steve Thompson (top left) will aim to find Courtney Lawes & Tom Palmer (bottom left) and Croft (centre), while Keven Mealamu (bottom right) will try to hit Kieran Read (top R), Sam Whitelock & Brad Thorn (middle)

By Jeremy Guscott
Ex-England and Lions star

The All Blacks' decision to select Sonny Bill Williams may have been stealing the headlines but the crucial factors in Saturday's game are more likely to be the line-out and the breakdown.

I have spoken before about Williams's potential to be a real superstar of world rugby but individuals, even ones with his physical attributes, can do little if they don't have the ball.

The line-out and breakdown are crucial areas in securing possession and England blind-side flanker Tom Croft will have a major role to play in both aspects of Saturday's game.

Consistently winning your own line-outs is vital in generating momentum for any side and given the amount of time teams spend together these days they should be highly-drilled operations.

England can move Croft up and down the line to try to dictate where the All Blacks throw in

There shouldn't be too many hiccups but as with anything, these can sometimes go awry if they lose their tempo and timing because of pressure.

And I hope England have really looked at the All Blacks' line-out because that seems to me to be one clear area where they have problems, and not always down to the opposition, because New Zealand hooker Keven Mealamu sometimes struggles to hit the spot.

England have a massive advantage with Croft because he is a superb line-out operator.

He is light and therefore easy to get up in the air and when you have the likes of the 6ft 4in Andrew Sheridan lifting him, getting him airborne and above anything the All Blacks have to offer should not be a problem.

England have more options about where to throw the ball on their own throw, and they can also move Croft up and down the line to try to almost dictate where the All Blacks throw in.


They will move Croft to where they think the All Blacks want to throw, which leaves them with the dilemma of either relying on their jumper beating him to the ball, or trying to throw elsewhere.

Put Croft at the front and it's got to be quite a high ball to get past him, which England can attack, and if you put him in the middle it's likely to go to the front - where New Zealand will face the looming threat of England lock Courtney Lawes.

All Black second row Anthony Boric, who will be on the bench, said this week that "the way Croft can get up and move around makes him a threat" so the visitors are well aware of the Leicester flanker.

But Boric is also bullish about their own operation: "We know we have got a good line-out. We just have to nail our core skills."

The key is doing that under pressure and if England can make them uncomfortable there, then there's every chance it could affect other areas of their game - unlikely with the All Blacks, but there's always that possibility.

And it is not just at the line-out where Croft has a vital role to play, because he also has a big part to play at the breakdown.

Richie McCaw presents the ball at the bottom of a ruck
McCaw is renowned for his ability to win possession at rucks

The All Blacks are top of the tree when it comes to rucks - they have mastered that area completely. They are very physical but also very smart, picking and choosing when to fully commit and when to hold off.

They are not completely unplayable there, as Australia open-side David Pocock showed on Saturday when he gave Richie McCaw as good a run for his money as he's had throughout his career.

What England may gain at the line-out with Croft, they may lose at the breakdown precisely because the Leicester man is light - he needs to find the physicality to compete with the likes of All Blacks counterpart Jerome Kaino.

Presentation is key at the breakdown initially and you have to make sure you clean out the opposition effectively to allow the scrum-half to get to the ball.

You need power to do that and that's where I think the All Blacks probably have the edge with the likes of McCaw, Kaino and Brad Thorn.

Blind-sides have a major role to play in this area, but they are generally the ghosts of the game because they do all the important work that goes largely unseen.

Sonny Bill Williams will not be 100% comfortable playing rugby at this level for the simple reason that he has not done it before

When England were at their best in 2003, Richard Hill excelled and he was the ultimate six - they do the hard work, the clearing out, and make life easy for their back-row partners so they can do the carrying and the other stuff that catches the eye.

Croft has to find the physicality and aggression he showed on the Lions tour in South Africa, and Lewis Moody has to find his best form on the open-side and compete with McCaw. If they do, England stand a great chance.

New Zealand have elected to play rugby league convert Williams at outside centre and I'm really looking forward to seeing how he goes, because I've heard so much about this guy.

The 6ft 4in, 17st centre was man of the match for Toulon in the European Challenge Cup final last season and had a fantastic game, and by all accounts he's been playing very well for Canterbury in New Zealand's domestic competition.

But he will not be 100% comfortable playing rugby at this level for the simple reason that he has not done it before.


We all know he's got the ability but he's only trained with the guys and although we all expect him to be able to do it, we don't yet know if he can.

That gives England centres Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape a slight advantage because they've played together a couple of times now, but that's not to say SBW won't turn round and have the game of his life.

He will form a physical midfield with Ma'a Nonu but Tindall and Hape are no shrinking violets either.

My gut feeling is we'll get a sensational game and if England cause New Zealand problems at the line-out and people like Moody and Croft do their job at the breakdown, Martin Johnson's side could be in for a pretty good day.

Jeremy Guscott was talking to BBC Sport's James Standley.

You can follow Jerry on Twitter at

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see also
Jeremy Guscott Q&A
01 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
Prop Sheridan returns for England
02 Nov 10 |  English
Williams to make All Blacks debut
04 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
All Blacks wary of Foden threat
02 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
Wilkinson to miss November Tests
29 Oct 10 |  English

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