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FEATURE How England can shatter the All Blacks' Eden Park streak

How England can shatter the All Blacks' Eden Park streak
1 month ago

Wind the clock back, all the way to 3rd July 1994. That was the last time one of the top European nations [France] beat the All Blacks at the Red Keep, otherwise known as fortress Eden Park. That represented New Zealand’s one and only loss in 49 games and 20 years at their impregnable Auckland citadel.

You need to delve even further into the folds of time to find a victory by one of the home nations; scroll back to 15th September 1973, with England winning 16-10. When the Red Rose returns to the same venue for the second game in a two-match series in July, English rugby men everywhere will feel 51 years is rather too long a wait. It will be high time to administer a sharp reproof, or at the very least, a gentle reminder the north can play a bit of rugby too.

That win in 1973 occurred in the middle of a unique purple patch of ascendancy for the northern hemisphere in the amateur era, sandwiched as it was between two historic British and Irish Lions series wins in New Zealand [1971] and South Africa [1974].

One man who was a central figure at Eden Park and in the Springbok series was lantern-jawed prop Fran Cotton. In 1974, it was Cotton’s work on the tight-head of the Lions scrum which helped give the tourists a psychological trump at the set-piece they never lost. In the game against the All Blacks one year previously, both the English props [Cotton and Cornishman ‘Stack’ Stevens] had shown an unexpected facility with ball in hand.

 

 

Any All Blacks front-rower would be proud of those bal -skills. But Eden Park in 1973 was an anomaly in an era when English forwards tended to be set-piece specialists, and very little else. It is perhaps only in the last ten years such a perception has begun to shift definitively.

England toured New Zealand again in 2014, and I was head coach Stuart Lancaster’s chief analyst at the time. The critical first Test was staged at Eden Park on 7th June, and England were without 16 players who had played – crazily enough – in the Premiership final between Saracens and Northampton only one week before. That tour was broken in the scheduling, before it ever got underway.

Even with a side reduced to second or third choices in some positions, Lancaster’s England was self-confident enough to take New Zealand to the wire. The game was locked up at 15-15 only three minutes from the end, before a try from Conrad Smith ultimately proved decisive.

Eden Park has been a happy hunting ground for England teams looking for transformation, to become the best version of themselves. It will be no different for Steve Borthwick’s charges this time around. A tour of the shaky isles means trial-by-fire, a making or breaking of potential, and the Cumbrian’s youthful squad look and feel ready to embrace the challenge. There will be no gentle easing-in at the shallow end of the pool, just the readiness for a deep dive off the high board into the unknown.

In contrast to 2014, when players from the two Premiership finalists did not join up until the second week of the tour, ten years later they were in recovery with the rest of the England squad only two days after the big game had finished. They will enjoy solid preparation before flying to the other side of the world.

In an interview on the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly Podcast, the England head coach outlined the challenge awaiting them thus:

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is jump right in. I don’t want players in the shadows. I don’t want players thinking of not making a mistake. I want them coming on the pitch and trying to win, bringing their point of difference.

“Several were playing in the Premiership final, in what was about as close to a Test-match atmosphere as you can get in club rugby. Those experiences can be transferable straight into the Test match arena. And that’s what I will be looking to do with this group of players.”

“Every team has breakthroughs, and we want to build on those [Six Nations] foundations. As you see the team evolving, you see an England team that has pace, footwork and dynamism in it. Those are the attributes we want to use in the way we play. Tactically smart, and bringing all their talent and points of difference on to the pitch.

“Picking up from where it left off [at the end of February], that’s a real challenge. We are playing in these iconic venues against formidable opposition. If you approach it in the right way, and have the mindset that we are going to be aggressive in how we play, then you can have some brilliant memories.

“The cups – you have to give them back. The memories are what you have, the moments afterwards in the changing room. What I really want for this young team is to have brilliant memories of their time in this shirt. And what a challenge we’ve got over the next few weeks in Japan and New Zealand.”

The penny finally dropped, and England’s eureka moment occurred after the third round of the Six Nations. Having scored only six tries and averaged 21 points per game against Italy, Wales and Scotland, the men in white scored seven tries, and bumped their scoring average up to 27 points per game versus their two strongest opponents in the last two rounds.

Against Ireland, they discovered the reason why Northampton’s George Furbank was starting in the team at full-back ahead of Leicester’s Freddie Steward. England knew Ireland would look to keep ball-in-play time high by kicking infield wherever possible, and they made up their minds to return with ball in hand, supplanting the Leicester reflex of kicking it straight back to their opponents again.

 

If it was Steward forced to turn and chase back near his own 40m line off a long Irish clearance, there is little doubt the outcome would be another high kick and chase by the Tigers giant. But it is diminutive Saint Furbank in the backfield, and he is prepared to be bold, jump right in and back the skills of the England outside backs on the return.

His club-mate Tommy Freeman rides the hit from Calvin Nash and that is risk-reward won. Furbank recycles himself from the far side of the ruck to become the key passer on the second play. That is how evolution is achieved, it is how you emerge from the shadows of negative rugby.

Once you get a taste for adventure, it becomes a hard habit to break.

 

 

The moment of truth arrives for Ollie Lawrence when he is felled by Hugo Keenan’s tackle out on the right – just as it did for Freeman at the start of the match. With minimal support around him, Lawrence is prepared to make the mental jump, ride the challenge and wait for the cavalry [in the shape of Ben Earl and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso] to arrive. By next phase, he also knows Furbank will have found a way to recycle himself back into play after a heavy challenge by Robbie Henshaw in midfield, to lead the charge down the left.

In the final round against France in Paris, England added set-piece accuracy on attack to their arsenal. The litmus test for a good backline is often shown by their ability to pass left to right off ‘the wrong hand’ successfully, and England scored three of their four tries moving in that direction.

 

 

The first two receivers [George Ford and Henry Slade] are sitting fearlessly on top of the defence when they make their passes off the left hand, and that is enough to spring Freeman free down the right. In the second clip, it is the turn of the England forwards to revive memories of Fran Cotton and Stack Stevens with skilful interplay between back-rowers Sam Underhill and Earl. Lawrence scored his second try shortly afterwards.

The stickability of England’s game plan, and their courage to implement it remained until the dying embers of the match.

 

The ball rattles through the hands at lightning speed from left to right, between Ford and Marcus Smith and Freeman to give England a tantalising taste of what victory might be like in the French capital city.

The 2024 squad will arrive in New Zealand on the back of a big breakthrough at the Six Nations, and supported by schedule which [unlike 2014] gives them every chance to prepare to win.

Likely England 23 for the first Test vs New Zealand: 1. Joe Marler, 2. Jamie George, 3. Dan Cole, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. George Martin, 6. Chandler Cunningham-South, 7. Sam Underhill, 8. Ben Earl, 9. Alex Mitchell, 10. Marcus Smith, 11. Tommy Freeman, 12. Ollie Lawrence, 13. Henry Slade, 14. Immanuel Fey-Waboso, 15. George Furbank.
Bench: Fin Baxter, Theo Dan, Will Stuart, Alex Coles, Alex Dombrandt, Ben Spencer, Fin Smith, Freddie Steward.

I finished a piece at the end of the Six Nations with the Maori saying: Iti noa ana he pito mata: ‘From the withered tree, a flower blooms’. This red rose is in bud, and it could blossom into a series as memorable as Ireland’s last visit to New Zealand back in 2022. Now that would be a memory worth keeping.

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Comments

355 Comments
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Barry 31 days ago

First international since bottling a world cup final, so bound to be a hangover.

A new, ultra hyped coach and a squad of players not rested up from finishing up their farmers league commitments.

Not a bad time to be playing the AB’s.

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Lou Cifer 31 days ago

As a neutral, I think this will be a great series with a young English team trying to make some history and a new ABs coach under pressure to make them “invincible” once again especially as majority of the NZ public see him as the messiah coming to save the day.

Having said all that I wouldn’t be surprised if NZ end up 2-0 at the end of it all. The Poms will see 1-1 as a successful tour and as I’ve said before I’d love to see Razor squirm once the media applies some pressure if the ABs were to lose the 1st test😬

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Joseph 32 days ago

It seems to me that nobody from the NH has watched a lick of Super Rugby. I know that this England side has been the best since 2019 blah blah blah, but there are players from the Hurricanes, Cheifs, Crusaders, and Blues who could walk into that English side no worries and be called a superstar. I mean, England fans have been glazing their players like crazy lately, like they didn’t just get destroyed in the quarterfinals in a RWC and now have to play the All Blacks in NZ, against a coach with a track record of victory, with a brand new, shiny player base who all want to prove that they should be starters.
It should also be noted that this will not even be a full strength team, missing the like of Richie Mounga and Samisoni Taukei’aho. Even so, this incoming All Blacks squad is going to be a RWC2027 contender.

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Jon 32 days ago

England might have a chance….if you poison them at dinner…twice

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Chris 33 days ago

Fat chance, ninglets

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Ben 34 days ago

Dream on

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SadersMan 34 days ago

I dunno, the failure of England to get out of pool play at RWC2015 shows their true state in 2014 was perhaps the thrashing they got in the 3rd test at Hamilton, once the ABs found their feet.

But there’s always room for optimism, new ABs coaching team, new combos in key positions, historically mixed efforts early in June series, no warm-up match, etc etc. Add in England’s on the rise. Exciting times ahead for both teams.

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Josh 34 days ago

CORRECTION, 1994 was not 20 years ago. When the All Blacks play England at Eden Park this year it will be *30 years *since they lost a test at Eden Park.

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Derek Murray 34 days ago

Thanks Nick. When Borthwick chose Furbank over Steward for the biggest game of the tournament, it made a big statement. I’m not the guy I was at Leicester and I’m not Eddie Jones. I admire him immensely for making the call.

There are a lot of talented backline players running round in the GP right now. It would be a shame to burn through a generation of talented ball players and runners with a game plan that didn’t utilise their talents.

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Tommy B. 34 days ago

I think that will be close to the team, Nick. But I think he might start with Baxter. Throughout the 6 Nations he never started with both Marler and Cole. I think it’s to do with Felix Jones’s ‘Bok’ defence system. The thinking presumably being that they can hide one old fella at a time but not both. Marler on the bench with Stuart would be my guess.

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