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The key areas for England as they chase prized New Zealand scalp

By PA
Marcus Smith/ PA

England play their first match in New Zealand for a decade as they look to shock the All Blacks in Dunedin on Saturday morning.

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Here, the PA news agency examines five talking points heading into the first of two Tests between the rivals.

The ultimate challenge

England wins against New Zealand on Kiwi soil are precious and have been managed only twice before – in 1973 and 2003.

Since Martin Johnson’s team prevailed against the odds over two decades ago, England have played seven more times in the All Blacks’ back yard and got close only once, a 20-15 defeat in Auckland in 2014.

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South Africa are world champions, but outside the global showpiece winning a Test series in New Zealand is the sport’s ultimate challenge.

Chinks in armour

The All Blacks are heavy favourites to triumph at Forsyth Barr Stadium, yet they have rarely appeared so vulnerable.

Their first outing of the year takes place under a new head coach and captain in Scott Robertson and Scott Barrett respectively, while influential stalwarts such as Richie Mo’unga, Brodie Retallick and Aaron Smith have either retired or are on sabbaticals in Japan.

Factor in player unrest with administrators and the Crusaders fading as the dominant force in Super Rugby and it seems to be a good time to be facing the World Cup runners-up.

Smith’s moment of truth

If ever there was a moment for Marcus Smith to prove he is England’s principal fly-half it comes in Dunedin. Smith was electric in the tour opener in Tokyo a fortnight earlier, but the space provided by Japan’s defence was a gift to a player with his attacking repertoire.

New Zealand will be far less accommodating, but if Smith’s decision-making and game management match his creativity with the ball in hand, the jersey will be his for the foreseeable future.

Savea v Earl

A thunderous collision awaits at number eight where Ben Earl and Ardie Savea go head to head. New Zealand’s Savea is the current world player of the year, a dynamic back row who is at his best in attack but also a force at the breakdown.

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Earl has displayed similar strengths since taking last autumn’s World Cup by storm and while they are not the biggest operators in their position, they have the explosive power to blast through tackles.

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Long-term view

Win or lose, England’s line-up is unlikely to show many changes for the second Test in Auckland as part of a deliberate policy to develop a settled side.

Steve Borthwick’s predecessor Eddie Jones was responsible for a high turnover of players but the current regime see retaining a core of internationals who develop through shared experiences as the best route to success at the 2027 World Cup.

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3 Comments
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Neil 14 days ago

I’m dialing back my expectations, though remain optimistic, and while a win would be great, a performance on par with those we’ve seen over the last 3 games is fine with me.

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finn 5 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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