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Premiership Rugby

Preview – New Zealand v England

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Even non-believers in the rugby gospel will be perched eagerly by their televisions, radios and PCs for this most keenly awaited of oval-ball showdowns, with prime-time in New Zealand and an early morning start in England not putting off the masses from taking in the show.

It seems going into the game that beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, especially where the travelling English are concerned.

Ask your average Antipodean, and the current brand of white-shirted Grand Slammers may be litle more than up-the-jumper mud merchants with a big boot, while the British man in the street may well tell you that there has never been a more accomplished all-round brand than the current expansive red rose crop.

Whatever the reality, the visitors come into the game in the rudest of health, on the back of a Six Nations clean sweep, having a mighty depth of talent at their disposal and with a midweek win against the much-feared Maori under their belts.

The disbelievers in Woodward's total rugby will well point out that the New Plymouth rain played a part in that defeat of a star-studded Maori XV on Monday, but the coach himself has not bought into the pigeon-holing of his side as a bunch of conservative rolling-maul grunters.

"You guys [the media] can write what you like, but I don't really think about it," rattled the coach at a press conference upon arrival in the 'Land of the Long White Cloud', ahead of a match forecast for a mild evening in the shining modern cauldron of a stadium known colloquially as the 'Cake Tin'.

"I hear we still play on wet, muddy pitches, which is quite amusing. We hear we won't win the World Cup because we're used to playing in grass a foot deep. Twickenham is as fast as any pitch in the world," he added.

It is with consistency in mind that Woodward has opted for the exact same starting XV to take on the All Blacks which did the business in the Grand Slam pressure cooker of Dublin back in March – apart from late injury withdrawal Matt Dawson – although his charges face a New Zealand side primed to entertain, but with an underlying solidity to their mixture.

There is pace aplenty in Blues wing Joe Rokocoko, the Fijian-born speed man who makes his debut down the right flank, while the youthful Hurricanes thunderbolt Ma'a Nonu adds bite to the midfield after a remarkable ascent through the ranks.

He makes his debut in familiar surrounds after wowing the Wellington crowds during the Super 12 with some sensational comibination play alongside the form second five-eighth in the world at present, Tana Umaga.

Despite the Hurricanes' failure to reach the Super 12 Final, the thoughtful but powerful play of the 30-year-old Umaga has been nothing short of miraculous, dictating proceedings with astonishing ease and unquestionable effect from second receiver. Along with tricky first five-eighth Carlos Spencer – another Super 12 star in recent months – much of the All Black game will depend on the contribution of the dreadlocked veteran.

Mileage may have been made of England's ill-fated last visit to New Zealand shores back in 1998, when they were unceremoniously massacred by a potent All Black side over the course of two Tests, but even in a World Cup year, the respective parties are looking no further than Saturday.

"I'm not even thinking about the World Cup. Test match rugby is not about preparing for the World Cup. Test match rugby is about today," said Woodward.

"We'll start thinking about the World Cup at the end of July. You don't come down here to play Australia and the All Blacks and try and experiment or prepare for the World Cup. We're here to win."

All Black captain and Crusaders back rower Reuben Thorne has got the nod at skipper ahead of some lively competition, and said of the match: "Certainly this is a tough one to start with. Ideally, we would have liked to have had one game under our belts before we came up against England.

"We have been thrown in the deep-end here and in some ways that is great. But it is also a huge challenge. England have had a whole campaign together, they know each other's play so well, and we have not played together yet."

With Kiwi teams having completely dominated the Super 12 competition all season, New Zealand coach John Mitchell has had no shortage of rugby riches to choose from, with the names omitted from his squad making equally frightening reading as the actual list of those included, with the likes of Andrew Mehrtens, Christian Cullen and Taine Randell not even deemed fit for a squad place.

Mitchell may well be the poacher turned game-keeper of this fascinating tussle, having given great service as assistant coach to Woodward with England before heading home and taking over the Chiefs post. His time at Sale Sharks and curent Zurich Premiership champions London Wasps will serve him well ahead of this match, with Wasps fullback Josh Lewsey being among a host of his former players on show.

Despite England's lack of visits to the southern hemisphere in the last few years, the two sides did meet only seven months ago at Twickenham, and while much can be made of the fact that a depleted All Black side were beaten by three points only, despite New Zealand's massive 11 changes from that team, England themselves have made six.

And while the cynics might cite England's propensity to rely on the boot of prolific fly-half Jonny Wilkinson to get them out of trouble, the stats add an interesting angle on things.

Of the last 10 Tests played by each of the two countries, both teams have scored exactly the same number of tries, crossing the line on 38 occasions each, an average of 3.8 tries per game.

For a more representative figure perhaps, take away the game with the biggest number of tries – 11 for New Zealand against Fiji and seven for England against South Africa – as well as the game with the fewest tries, and England actually come out on top, with an average of 3.75 tries per game, compared to New Zealand's 3.375.

While that may well be mathematical mumbo-jumbo, one numbers game on offer come Satuday is not to be sniffed at, with England's status as the top-ranked team in the world directly hinging on the winner of the game.

Should New Zealand win, even by the slimmest of margins, then they would leap-frog England to become leaders of the Zurich World Rankings, while an English victory would see them accelerate away from the second-placed home side.

But put the stats to one side and focus on the real questions at stake here. Do the southern hemisphere teams still rule the global roost? Can England win in Australasia? Or is this attacking All Black team simply too strong for anyone on the planet?

Players to watch:

For New Zealand: Having only just celebrated his 21st birthday, Hurricanes powerhouse Ma'a Nonu has been given a debut in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a home England Test, but the bulldozing centre's lightning assimilation into the Super 12 this season showed that he is capable of making giant leaps with relative ease.

For England: With Jason Robinson having returned to the wing and even outside centre during the Six Nations, the spotlight fell on new fullback and previous fringe player Josh Lewsey of London Wasps, whose athletic running style and solid defence has finally made him a fan favourite after his previously mixed forays into the international game.

Head to head: Chris Jack (New Zealand) v Martin Johnson (England): Arguably the two most accomplished No.4s on the planet, this battle between the veteran England skipper and the composed Crusader promises to be a masterclass, with the physical Johnson showing his mettle in the tight exchanges, while Jack's open-field excellence provides a fascinating contrast.

Recent Results:2002: In London: England won 31-281999: In London: New Zealand won 31-16 (World Cup)1998: In Auckland: New Zealand won 40-101998: In Dunedin: New Zealand won 64-221997: In London: England 26 New Zealand 26

Prediction: On a fine night at the 'Cake Tin', England may well prove their doubters wrong with their running ability behind the scrum, but despite their pack being the more experienced, the bright young things in the New Zealand three-quarters will just have enough to squeeze home by around four points. For once, we agree with the Zurich computer on this one, although there is a nagging feeling that this England team might just be too good to blow it.Zurich World Rankings prediction: New Zealand by four points.Planet Rugby prediction: New Zealand by four points.

The teams:

New Zealand: 15 Doug Howlett, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Ma'a Nonu, 12 Tana Umaga, 11 Caleb Ralph, 10 Carlos Spencer, 9 Justin Marshall, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richard McCaw, 6 Reuben Thorne (captain), 5 Ali Williams, 4 Chris Jack, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Anton Oliver, 1 Dave Hewett.Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Carl Hoeft, 18 Brad Thorn, 19 Jerry Collins, 20 Steve Devine, 21 Daniel Carter, 22 Mils Muliaina.

England: 15 Josh Lewsey, 14 Jason Robinson, 13 Will Greenwood, 12 Mike Tindall, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Kyran Bracken, 8 Lawrence Dallaglio, 7 Neil Back, 6 Richard Hill, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Martin Johnson (captain), 3 Jason Leonard, 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Graham Rowntree.Replacements: 16 Dorian West, 17 Phil Vickery, 18 Steve Borthwick, 19 Joe Worsley, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Paul Grayson, 22 Dan Luger.

Date: Saturday, June 14Kick-off: 19.00 (07.00 GMT, 08.00 BST) Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington)Conditions: Mild, dry, 12°CReferee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)Touch judges: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Matt Goddard (Australia)Television Match Official: Peter Marshall (Australia)

By Mark Smith

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