A year ago, many were salivating at the prospect of England facing New Zealand but it is now a vastly different story heading into Saturday’s game at Twickenham.
Injuries, a lack of form and the defending world champions’ continued brilliance means that pretty much everything is stacked against Eddie Jones’ men going into the showdown in London.
With the Red Rose decimated up front and lacking prominent ball-carriers, particularly with Zach Mercer strangely omitted, it could be a long afternoon for the 2016 and ’17 Six Nations winners.
Manu Tuilagi’s absence also leaves them without a potentially destructive option off the bench, while this weekend’s opponents have top-end ability throughout the 23.
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.
Players to watch:
For England: 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.
For New Zealand: Most of 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.
Head-to-head: 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.
2014: New Zealand won 24-21 in London
2014: New Zealand won 36-13 in Hamilton
2014: New Zealand won 28-27 in Dunedin
2014: New Zealand won 20-15 in Auckland
2013: New Zealand won 30-22 in London
2012: England won 38-21 in London
2010: New Zealand won 26-16 in London
2009: New Zealand won 19-6 in London
Prediction: 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
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
Date: Saturday, November 10
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)