The New Zealand All Blacks. The name itself evokes fear and awe. Combining beauty and brutal efficiency, it’s a team that likes to see itself as the best in the world and has the numbers to prove it.
What’s worse is the opposition knows what is coming, but executing a strategy to survive a meeting with the All Blacks is easier said than done.
That’s the task now facing Eddie Jones and his England team, which plays the All Blacks on Saturday in Yokohama. When the Australian slid into one of the hottest coaching seats in world rugby after England’s ignominious exit from a home World Cup four years ago, he told the downtrodden players they would lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan.
But to fulfill his promise, he must oversee an act that has been done just three times this millennium. In fact, in 41 matches since England and New Zealand first squared off on a rugby field in 1905, the All Blacks have lost just seven times. Despite a one-point defeat in London last November, England’s last triumph against the All Blacks came seven matches ago in 2012.
How do they do it again?
‘More than capable of getting it done’
“Control the air, win the battle, control the breakdown, make every tackle, take your chances and score three tries,” is what Ugo Monye, the former England winger who represented his country 14 times, told CNN Sport. “A lot needs to go right to beat the best, and New Zealand are the best.
“England will have to be better than they were against Australia [in a 40-16 win in the quarterfinals]. But New Zealand will also have to be better than they were against Ireland [where they won 46-14]. This is a formidable England team and they are more than capable of getting it done.”
When England last beat New Zealand — 38-21 at Twickenham — it achieved every one of Monye’s requirements. England won 74 of 76 rucks, missed fewer tackles than the All Blacks and, crucially, scored three tries. One of the scores came from center Manu Tuilagi whose powerful runs and effectiveness in the collision made the difference.
“He was on fire that day,” said Danny Care, England’s second most capped scrumhalf who was not included in the World Cup Squad but was on the field seven years ago. “I don’t think I’ve seen a much better individual performance. Luckily for England they’ve got him again this weekend.”
Biggest game of their lives
But Tuilagi and the rest of the England backs can only wreak havoc if they have the ball and they will rely heavily on England’s jackals in the loose. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, the “Kamikaze twins” as Monye called them, will play an integral role Saturday.
“In knockout rugby the team that can win turnovers is generally the one that comes out on top,” Monye said. “And this is where England maybe have the advantage. New Zealand are a team that can hurt you in so many different ways but if you can frustrate them and get in their faces at the breakdown then you can get in their heads.”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Underhill said this semifinal showdown will be “just another game” and that his side would “not get carried away by the occasion.” Care, disagrees.
“It’s the biggest game of those lads’ lives,” he told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies. “You couldn’t script it. On our day we can do it and it’s going to be an unbelievable semifinal.”
Both Monye and Care stressed the importance of not fixating too much on the All Blacks.
“Playing against such opposition can help bring clarity to the mind,” Monye said. “You know they are going to be brilliant so you instead focus on yourself, on what you can control. You get back to what has made you successful and trust that you can get the job done. If you start worrying about the opposition you hesitate and a team like the All Blacks punishes your insecurity.”
Care agreed. “When we beat them, we took them out of the equation and focused on ourselves,” he said of 2012’s win which saw England score more points against New Zealand than it had ever done before. “I’m sure that Eddie will be doing that again this week.”
“No one thinks we can win”
Jones told reporters this week there is no pressure on his team. “No one thinks we can,” he said with a smirk. “There are 120 million Japanese people out there whose second team are the All Blacks. There is no pressure on us.
“We’re just going to have a great week, enjoy it, relax, train hard and enjoy this great opportunity we’ve got. They are going to be looking for their third World Cup [in a row] so that does bring some pressure.”
Since France knocked New Zealand out of the 2007 World Cup in the quarterfinals, the All Blacks have won 87% of its games, winning 146, losing 17 and drawing six. Since that France defeat the team has not lost a single World Cup match stretching across three tournaments.
However, defeats by Australia, Ireland and South Africa in the last two years show the All Blacks aren’t unbeatable, but they’re certainly as close to that description as any team in world sport.
“If England can win this match I think they’ll win the whole thing,” Monye said. “No disrespect to Wales or South Africa [who face each other in the second semifinal on Sunday] but the momentum England would generate if they can win would be immense.”
Has there ever been a bigger “if” in rugby history?