Ian Foster believes his All Blacks have come a long, long way from the disjointed group who staggered their way through the first part of this rugby year. Eighty minutes on Twickenham under the England blowtorch in their tour finale should tell us all we need to know about that bold claim.
It is a fitting, and telling, end to the All Blacks year as Foster’s men run out at England’s southwest London stronghold for their 13th, and final, test match of 2022 (kickoff 6.30am Sunday NZT).
Against a side who famously sat them on their backsides last time out – 19-7 in a magnificent 2019 World Cup semifinal ambush in Yokohama – it is expected to provide the perfect barometer for the New Zealanders as they head for their final summer ahead of the World Cup in France.
The All Blacks, remember, opened in 2022 by losing a home series to Ireland (from 1-0 up) for the first time in their history and then dropping their Rugby Championship opener to the Springboks in Mbombela.
At that stage they had lost three of four for the year, and five of their last six, and things were unraveling faster than Donald Trump’s political future.
Of course a correction, of sorts, came. Foster’s men produced a brilliant final-quarter comeback to roll the Springboks at Ellis Park to save the coach’s job, and their season, though immediately took a dip on the rollercoaster ride of 2022 by dropping a first ever home test to Argentina in Christchurch – their fourth defeat of the year (one shy of the record in the professional era).
Since then there have been seven consecutive victories, and the first three tests of this tour tucked away with varying degrees of impressiveness.
Winning has suddenly become a habit for these All Blacks, even if they’ve needed their fair share of luck to prevail in Melbourne (over the Wallabies), in Tokyo (over Japan) and then last Monday (NZT) over a gallant Scottish outfit .
But they’ve also shown they’re capable of steamrolling sides, too, as they’ve rebuilt a form, confidence and rhythm to their game that has at times been impressive.
Now, can they sign off in style and head to the beach with a spring in their steps before the long haul to France 2023 gets under way?
The signs are promising. For starters, the form trend of ’22 suggests they’re due another commanding performance after the muddled effort of Murrayfield just six days earlier.
And Foster has chose what looks to be his strongest possible lineup with Beauden Barrett back at fullback, Jordie Barrett into midfield, Richie Mo’unga in the pivot and Scott Barrett returning to No. 6 in a pack that has the muscle to go with the hustle.
There’s even a bold call or two, with last week’s debutant Mark Telea given a deserved crack at No 14, the experienced Codie Taylor preferred to the in-form Samisoni Taukei’aho at hooker and the bench carrying two loose forwards and two midfielders as Foster covers his bases.
Foster spoke of his optimism that his team is ready to sign off in style against Eddie Jones’ men.
“We’re ready,” he declared. “We’re in a good space. I like where our game is going. We’ve had a plan to grow some options, to cement some combinations and change a few things in our game. If you look at the last three to four weeks with where we’ve got to in that space, we’re delighted.”
Then delighted became a thing. Foster told a Zoom call of Kiwi media that he had been “delighted” with the Wales victory (55-23) and, you guessed it, “delighted” with the comeback 31-23 win over the Scots.
“Now we’ve got another one at Twickenham against an opponent that has clearly targeted this game as the big one of their autumn program,” he added.
“It’s a great challenge, and great to test ourselves on the last test of the year and finish off what we hope is going to be a successful tour.”
The All Blacks should be plenty motivated, too. It is Brodie Retallick’s 100th test (Owen Farrell’s on the other side too), and he and skipper Sam Whitelock combined in the second row for a world record 64th time. These are men their teammates will be desperate to honor in the appropriate manner.
Plus, given what they’ve endured this year, there will be a determination to draw a line under the negativity of 2022 and sign off on a note of hope and optimism for what lies ahead.
It’s a big, big test, and with Jones pulling the strings in the England camp, Foster expects, well, the unexpected.
“I’m sure there will be surprises,” he shrugged.
“They’re a good team, they’ll be hurting a little after dropping that game to Argentina, and I’m sure they’ll come up with some clever plays. But their DNA is mainly about suffocating you, and taking your time away. It’s a great challenge.
“We’re playing a different type of team this week. They like to play a strong pressure game and to squeeze your game and mindset a bit. The challenge for us against this opponent is not to go into our shell.”
The All Blacks have won eight of their last nine at Twickenham and 15 of their last 17 overall against England. One more in that column would make for an end to the year the polar opposite of the beginning.
England: Freddie Steward, Jack Nowell, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (capt), Jonny May, Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet; Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge. Reservations: Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Will Stuart, David Ribbans, Jack Willis, Ben Youngs, Guy Porter, Henry Slade
All Blacks: Beauden Barrett, Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Dalton Papali’i, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock (capt), Brodie Retallick, Tyrel Lomax, Codie Taylor, Ethan De Groot. Reservations: Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Bower, Nepo Laulala, Shannon Frizell, Hoskins Sotutu, TJ Perenara, David Havili, Anton Lienert-Brown.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).