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A year ago all the talk was about England back to back Six Nations champions chasing down the All Blacks and looking to claim their No.1 spot in the world rankings. When a large England contingent went over to the Land of the Long White Cloud last summer and emerged with a drawn three-Test series the excitement began to grow still further.
But since then Jones’ side have hiccoughed while Hansen’s have hit the pedal England finished fifth in this year’s Six Nations and went on a five-Test losing streak that included two defeats in South Africa this summer.
The All Blacks swatted France aside and claimed yet another Rugby Championship crown and arrive in south west London for the first time since 2014 eager to flex their muscles as the best in the business.
But England have restored some confidence of late – back-to-back wins over the Springboks, the first in Cape Town in June and the second at Twickenham last weekend, have set them back on course. And these All Blacks are not invincible the Boks proved that in Wellington this summer and could have done the double over them in Pretoria.
England do have injuries that has been well documented but their inexperienced pack grew into the game against South Africa last weekend. This Saturday Ben Moon is promoted to start for the first time for his country while Sam Underhill replaces the injured Tom Curry at openside.
There aren’t too many areas where the tourists lack experience but, even when those individuals do, the players fit into the squad seamlessly. Jack Goodhue and Karl Tu’inukuafe are newbies this year but have already produced some outstanding displays, helping the All Blacks claim yet another Rugby Championship title.
On the other side of the spectrum, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock and Ben Smith may be the wrong side of 30, but they are still all among the best in their respective positions.
So where can England challenge the All Blacks? Man for man, Steve Hansen’s charges are stronger in every facet but, should they underperform and the Red Rose manage to gain a solid platform up front, then the home team have the talent, pace and skill to create opportunities. Henry Slade has yet to really fire in a white shirt but there is no doubting his ability, while Jonny May, Chris Ashton and Elliot Daly are all well-rounded players.
It all comes back to whether the backs will get enough ball, however. Gone are the days when the All Blacks could be attacked at the scrum and struggled to win their own line-out.
Hansen has the finest front five around, with both props incredibly adept at the set-piece, and a lock pairing which rivals, and perhaps even exceeds, the great South African duo of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.
England were out-muscled in the first-half against the Springboks and no doubt Jones will fear a similar struggle this weekend, but they did rectify a few of their issues after the break.
That allowed their dangerous backline into the game and there were glimpses of excellence in the second period, but the pack will need to step up another level on Saturday.
New Zealand have never found Twickenham an easy place to visit over the past decade, with their biggest winning margin since their 32-6 triumph in 2008 being 13 points, but they should be comfortable victors.
The consensus is that the Red Rose will need to score tries to get close to New Zealand and in Chris Ashton they have one of the best in the business. The Sale Sharks wing made a positive impression on his return to the side last weekend – his first appearance in a white shirt for four years – and they will look for more of that on Saturday. Ashton seemed to have license to roam against South Africa, producing a couple of nice passes to open space on the outside, and his ability to track the ball and potential breaks from team-mates will be a threat should England get on the front foot.
The All Blacks’ qualities are well known but it will be a first chance to see Jack Goodhue on European soil after impressing in the Rugby Championship. The Crusaders centre is a huge talent and was instrumental in the franchise’s back-to-back Super Rugby triumphs. Goodhue reads the game incredibly well and, in the mould of Conrad Smith, often makes the right decision, but the 23-year-old is a better athlete than his predecessor, which makes him an exceptional prospect.
England’s scrum held up better than most expected last weekend, even if they were under pressure in the first-half, but facing New Zealand’s front five is even more intimating. Most of the praise that goes the All Blacks’ way centres around their athleticism and skill level in the loose, but the set-piece is incredibly well drilled. That quality of coaching is displayed in prop Karl Tu’inukuafe‘s progress, who is a rookie in professional rugby terms let alone at international level, but it will be a huge ask for Kyle Sinckler to negate the loosehead’s power and technique. On the opposite side, Owen Franks is one of world’s best scrummagers while Ben Moon only made his debut against South Africa. Should the Red Rose get parity, however, then they do have the talent behind the scrum to cause the world champions problems, but whether the hosts are competitive will depend on the set-piece.
England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (cc), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Brad Shields, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dylan Hartley (cc), 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Courtney Lawes, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Jack Nowell.
New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ofa Tuungafasi, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Ryan Crotty.
The All Blacks will be too strong and, despite England’s resilient display last weekend, Eddie Jones’ men will struggle to get close. New Zealand by 15.