When World Rugby’s fixture list showed that England and the All Blacks would clash at Twickenham this weekend‚ it was circled as a red-letter day.
Had the match been played at the time it was announced it would’ve pitted the first and second-ranked teams in the world against each other. Although it’s always a big clash on the rugby calendar‚ it feels like it has come 12 months too late.
Had the All Blacks faced Eddie Jones’s England in November 2017 there would have been en extra edge. It would’ve felt like an unofficial world championship decider considering where both sides were at the start of the autumn internationals a year ago.
At this stage last year England had played 20 matches under Jones since he took charge in late 2015 and had won 19. It was a sequence that included 17 wins in a row.
Their only loss was a tense 13-9 setback against Ireland in Dublin while they had whitewashed Australia and Argentina in away series in that time and won back-to-back Six Nations titles.
Last November they added three more wins to the sequence to end 2017 with 22 wins out of 23 in two years under Jones.
In the same period the All Blacks had been similarly dominant. Besides winning the 2015 World Cup‚ the All Blacks went through 2016 and 2017 with 21 wins in 25 matches with three losses and a draw. They won back-to-back Rugby Championships without losing a game.
In that period they suffered one defeat and a draw against the 2017 British & Irish Lions while there was also a defeat to Australia in a dead-rubber third Bledisloe Cup clash in 2017 and the shock 40-29 setback against Ireland in Chicago in 2016.
It was all set up for a seismic clash. But it had to wait and like two great boxers of the same generation‚ they didn’t meet at the height of their powers.
In the past year England have struggled with severe injuries and loss of form while the All Blacks have also looked less dominant‚ even losing at home for the first time in nine years when the Boks upset them in Wellington earlier this year.
England have lost five of their nine Tests in 2018‚ managing to beat Italy and Wales in the Six Nations‚ claim a dead rubber third Test against the Boks in Cape Town‚ while also beating SA in controversial circumstances at Twickenham last week.
Jones has come under pressure for the first time at England’s helm and had the Boks put England away last week‚ as they should’ve considering their dominance in the match‚ the All Black Test might feel like a career-saving encounter.
Although England might not be the purring‚ well-oiled chariot of 12 months ago‚ the All Blacks have made sure they are as well prepared as possible for the showdown – the first of three matches on their British and Irish tour for the world champions.
“We’ve been able to come here fresh which is good – this is probably the freshest we’ve been‚” assistant coach Ian Foster said in reference to the bulk of the squad travelling to Britain more than a week ago.
“The players have been bouncing around‚ probably trying to get us management up. They’ve probably got more energy than us at the moment.
“They’ve used that smartly. They’ve got some good ideas about the game so we’ve got plenty of enthusiasm there. Ultimately that’s going to drive a good week but it’ll come down to how we execute. Twickenham‚ full house‚ big game‚ they’re always pretty special.”