New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen would not strike anyone as being susceptible to hype and PR spin but he has cranked it up himself by describing Saturday’s Twickenham clash with England as bigger than the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour.
England have not played the All Blacks for four long years but have nine players in their match day 23 who were involved in last year’s drawn series in New Zealand.
The Kiwis failure to put Warren Gatland’s tourists away, they drew 1-1 with the final Test a 15-15 stalemate, still rankles down under and Hansen’s pre-match comments had the whiff of a man with a score to settle.
“I think it’s even bigger than that,” he said. “The Lions tour has made it bigger because we weren’t successful in only drawing the series. To us that wasn’t successful. That has made this week have a sharper edge to it which is good.
“Everyone understands how big it is. There’s been a real buzz from the moment we got to name the northern hemisphere tour squad.
“We understand our history and who we are really well – it is talked about a lot when you first come in – and you’ve got to be reasonably stupid if you can’t work out this is going to be big.
“There’s going to be 80,000 people, it’s all over the papers, everyone’s talking about it, you can’t get a ticket so you’d have to be on holiday I reckon to not work out this is going to be big. And we ain’t got anyone on holiday this week.”
Most coaches spout the one game at a time line but Hansen seems to have had eyes on this fixture for a while. He played a developmental squad in Tokyo last Saturday which were still good enough to beat Japan 69-31 while his big guns arrived at their Teddington base a week ago to prepare for this Test match.
Hansen has called prop Karl Tu’inukuafe into the starting line up because of Joe Moody’s eye injury and paired Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue in the centre after the latter recovered from glandular fever.
In the second row Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock combine for the 49th time for the All Blacks, equalling the record set by Robin Brooke and Ian Jones,and the back three is sprinkled with stardust containing Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane.
Williams also has issues with England’s Lions contingent. He was sent off in the second Test of 2017 for a shoulder charge on Anthony Watson and the tourists went on to win the Wellington match 24-21.
Hansen claimed Williams is not beset by demons after that episode but is wary of Eddie Jones’ England. Jones beat the All Blacks five times in his stint as Australia coach between 2001 and 2005 and rebuilt England after the 2015 World Cup debacle before losing his Midas touch in the Six Nations.
“They won 18 Tests in a row coming out of a World Cup that was deemed to be a disaster. You couldn’t describe it any other way,” added Hansen. “I think Stuart Lancaster did a lot of work to set some platforms and then Eddie came in and really took it to another level. Winning 18 games in a row is not easy – only two teams in history have ever done it so you’d have to say they have improved but with that comes pressure. How do they keep doing it? Do they get comfortable?
“The Lions series I don’t think was great for English rugby in that a lot of players went straight back into club footy and there were a lot of injuries out of it. It’s hard to get momentum when you’ve got a lot of injuries and you are changing your squad all the time.
“They will be doing some stuff that’s for the future as well. While they wouldn’t be happy with their Six Nations results, they went to South Africa for a tough series over there and won the last one and beat South Africa the other day so you’d have to say they are on the up.
“They will play a physical game up front. Their kicking game is pretty good, their aerial skills to support that are good and they will look to wear us down. They won’t go away.”
New Zealand team to face England
Damian McKenzie; Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Karl Tu'inukuafe, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Liam Squire, Ardie Savea, Kieran Read.
Replacements: Dane Coles, Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Richie Mo'unga, Ryan Crotty.