Are England as good as the All Blacks?
A year ago you’d have been locked up for asking the question, but after 14 straight wins we’ve finally plucked up the courage to ask.
After Australia dumped England out of their own World Cup at the pool stage, obituaries were being written, Stuart Lancaster was out of work and the future looked bleak.
Fast forward 14 months and England have followed up their Six Nations Grand Slam with a clean sweep in the Autumn Internationals – culminating in their fourth win on the trot against the Wallabies.
And, whisper it softly, but New Zealand’s 40-29 defeat to Ireland in Chicago might just mean they are human after all.
So we’ve got to ask: are England as good as the All Blacks?
First things first: how have New Zealand done in 2016?
Any side would struggle to cope with the retirements of Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Dan Carter and Keven Mealamu. Any side except New Zealand, it would seem.
The All Black vintage of 2016 coasted through the Rugby Championship, with six wins out of six – opening up with an 8-42 mauling of Australia in Sydney and ending with a stunning 15-57 win in Durban.
That shock in Chicago was the only blot on the copybook since an all-conquering New Zealand lifted the World Cup. So who are the danger men – and how do England compare?
Are England as good as the All Blacks? Leadership
Eddie Jones has worked wonders with this England group and has yet to taste defeat while in charge of his adopted country.
He has one obvious quality in common with his All Black counterpart Steve Hansen: both demand absolute excellence.
Both sides know there will be hell to pay if they drop their levels by even the tiniest fraction.
By appointing Dylan Hartley as skipper, Jones made it clear he wanted a fresh start after the debacle of the World Cup. And the Saints hooker has stepped up.
And do not underestimate the role Jones’ new backroom team have played – step forward Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick.
However, Kieran Read has been crucial in ensuring standards haven’t slipped since he took over the All Blacks’ captaincy from McCaw.
And, while England’s fitness has gone through the roof under Jones, you’ve only got to see how many late tries the All Blacks score to get an idea of the shape they’re in.
Verdict: You can’t fault either side – both coaches, backroom teams and skippers have been impeccable.
Are England as good as the All Blacks? The packs
Argentina posed some awkward questions of England’s scrum – as Dan Cole will testify – but by and large both sides have a powerful front row and a solid set piece.
You’d be hard pressed to find a second-row pairing to match Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – but England might just claim to have one. Or two.
Any side that can afford to leave Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes on the bench clearly have an embarrassment of riches.
It’s safe to say Saracens pair George Kruis and Maro Itoje have taken to international rugby like ducks to water.
As ever, New Zealand have an awesome back row that play on the edge, marshalled by the ever impressive Read.
England have really upped their game in this area as well though, and the way they’ve coped without injured No.8 Billy Vunipola speaks volumes for their strength in depth.
Verdict: Again, it’s too close to call. We won’t know who has the edge until these two packs lock horns for real. Bring it on.
Are England as good as the All Blacks? The back divisions
Many questioned how Hansen’s side would cope without all-time record points scorer Carter, but Beauden Barrett has answered those questions emphatically and has the World Rugby Player of the Year award to prove it.
Barrett and Aaron Smith pull the strings from the half-back positions, unleashing the most devastating back division in world rugby.
In comparison, the ice-cool Owen Farrell has become arguably the most reliable kicker in world rugby – a genuine leader at the tender age of just 25.
Mercurial scrum-half Ben Youngs – neck and neck with Danny Care for a place in the side a year ago – was England’s player of the Autumn Internationals, with a kicking game and an eye for a gap that puts him right up among the world’s best.
Verdict: Both back divisions ooze class but with the likes of Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and Julian Savea you have to give the All Blacks the edge.
Fancy watching these two rugby behemoths get it on? Sorry – that’s not going to happen for a while, but if you want to see how the Lions get on in New Zealand next year just get in touch!