The All Blacks look to make it a clean sweep against a resilient England side, who will in turn be dead set on salvaging something from their tour. Only 6 points have separated the two sides over the opening two tests, and yet the series stands New Zealand 2, England naught. Though a strong win over a fledgling Crusaders side and two narrow defeats are nothing to be embarrassed about, the men in white will know that a win against the defending world champions on their home soil would strike a savage blow to their confidence heading into next year’s engagement in England, and in doing so provide a massive boost to the tournament hosts.
Like all of the touring northern sides, England are struggling with fatigue and fitness, and in the wake of last week’s match have lost Danny Care, Owen Farrell, Billy Twelvetrees, and now Geoff Parling, but still have the quality to cause an upset, as evidenced in Auckland. Courtney Lawes steps in for Parling, Ben Youngs for Care, Freddie Burns for Farrell, and Kyle Eastmond for Twelvetrees. Dylan Hartley gets his first chance to start, switching places with Rob Webber.
Two other significant changes have been made, the first is the return of Billy Vunipola at the expense of Ben Morgan. The giant Saracens steamroller should add a new dimension to the English attack, giving them a consistent source of go-forward on slow ball. Similarly a return to the midfield for Manu Tuilagi provides a boost in strike power, with Chris Ashton getting a chance to revive his international career on the wing. Danny Cipriani stands ready on the bench after impressing in Christchurch.
New Zealand have made two changes to the side, both worthy of contemplation. Kieran Read’s concussion symptoms have evidently subsided enough for him to make a return to the back row, in doing so re-forming the World Cup winning back row, with Jerome Kaino moving to his favoured blindside position. While Liam Messam is no slouch, there’s no denying the potential impact of the 2013 IRB player of the year recipient.
The midfield sees a change with Conrad Smith ruled out due to a hand injury, meaning Malakai Fekitoa gets his first chance to run on with the side. The Highlanders dynamo is a positively terrifying sight with ball in hand, blessed with a granite physique and a zest for chaos. It’s difficult to imagine the amount of concussive force that might be produced should he and Tuilagi come together at full tilt.
As in the first two encounters, this will be a blood and guts battle, with England knowing that they have no more games for which to reserve energy in the coming weeks. The ‘aura’ of the All Blacks has been a buzz word in the past couple weeks, and no one will be more apt to restore its meaning than Richie McCaw, whose own reputation could use a little patching. Expect an almighty tussle, with titanic collisions, and it’s anyone’s guess who might emerge victorious. Let’s have some fun and go with the upset, England by 3 and the door to the Webb Ellis trophy is blown wide open.
NEW ZEALAND vs ENGLAND
Saturday, June 21, 07:35 GMT, Hamilton
Referee: Jérôme Garces (FFR)
Assistants: Nigel Owens (WRU) & James Leckie (ARU)
TMO: George Ayoub (ARU)