England have a real chance to turn rugby history around against New Zealand… they are better prepared than ever and a gallant failure should no longer be accepted, writes CHRIS FOY

  • England will face New Zealand in the first of two Tests on Saturday
  • They have only won twice in New Zealand, but are well prepared this time
  • Failure should not be celebrated; England has a real chance to win

England's coaches and players often say they don't like to look back, but they are well aware that the big task on Saturday is to reverse rugby history – and they are convinced it can be done.

Why not? It has already happened before this series against the All Blacks has even started. The tourists are fit, ready, acclimatised, well prepared and confident, not tired, weakened, resigned and beleaguered.

This is a complete contrast to many previous visits to this remote and inhospitable enemy territory, where England have only won twice: in 1973 and 2003.

Compare the scenario today with the national team's last appearance a decade ago, when Stuart Lancaster was forced to leave a large part of his squad at home for the Premier League final due to a blatant, chaotic scheduling conflict.

The then head coach put together a mixed lineup for the first test, including a trivia pair in positions 10 and 12 – Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond.

Steve Borthwick's men are much better prepared than previous English teams that toured New Zealand
Stuart Lancaster's team failed in New Zealand 10 years ago after several of their key players were missing for the tour
New Zealand also brought Clive Woodward’s term of office to a gruesome end in 2004

They were great and England could and should have won. Instead they were narrowly beaten at Eden Park, lost narrowly here in the far south and then collapsed in Hamilton, resulting in a 3-0 blackwash.

Six years earlier, Rob Andrew had taken over as interim manager as England played two games, lost two and was marred by off-field controversy. In 2004, when England lost twice without the retiring Johnson at the helm, Clive Woodward's tenure came to a grisly end.

So there is a novelty factor this time around, with Steve Borthwick having overseen a smooth build-up since the tactical overhaul during the Six Nations and the subsequent 52-17 win over Japan in Tokyo two weeks ago, with a strong, up-and-coming team brimming with renewed confidence. It's not just what awaits them here that is strangely different.

All of the New Zealanders' previous confidence is now clearly gone – replaced by palpable doubts ahead of what the Otago Daily Times described as a “banana skin game”. New All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson is being hailed as a successful visionary, but this isn't Super Rugby with the Crusaders, where he was lord and master of all he oversaw. This is Test rugby; it's New Zealand and the pressure is on. Already.

Just days after its formation, Robertson – and his new, under-prepared team – now face the grand opening event. On Friday, the host association confirmed that Forsyth Barr Stadium had sold out just in time, meaning it would take a late rush to fill the massive greenhouse's 31,000 seats.

England played here three times in 2011 and won three times, but then lost narrowly by a point to the All Blacks in the same futuristic venue three years later. Their last three meetings with New Zealand have seen one win, one draw and one loss – also narrowly by a point. All in all, few of the tourists had any scars ahead of this latest battle.

It was fascinating to gauge the mood in these parts and see that the old superiority complex has disappeared. The last time a European team visited two years ago, Ireland overturned a 1-0 deficit to secure a memorable 2-1 series win. That upset may have removed the feeling of invincibility from the Kiwis' psyche when facing northern attackers who have been regularly derided and defeated in the past.

New Zealand lacks their usual confidence as they enter a new era under Scott Robertson
Sevu Reece (pictured) claimed that New Zealand did not know the names of his English counterparts, which was only intended to motivate England.

Recalled All Blacks winger Sevu Reece made another faux pas on Thursday, saying “we don't know their names”, which adds an extra dimension to the England team's motivation, but there was no shortage of that already. They know the context. They know that a win here can quickly send them into oval ball legend.

And they can win here. The recent tactical liberation means they now have a wider repertoire. In a head-to-head clash, Borthwick's side, led by the likes of George Martin, Sam Underhill and Chandler Cunningham-South, can still hit hard. But there's glitz and glamour further afield too, with Marcus Smith once again able to bring in flyers like the devastating Exeter prodigy Immanuel Feyi-Waboso. If locals don't know that name yet, they soon will.

One well-known guest player is Maro Itoje, and much will depend on his ability to climb back to the top in a country where he has enjoyed some of the high points of his career.

Ten years ago, the Saracens lock led England's Under-20s to victory at the Junior World Championship in Auckland, he was a mainstay in the Lions' epic series draw with the All Blacks in 2017 and was unbeatable again in Yokohama in 2019 as England beat those rivals in the World Championship semi-finals in arguably their finest hour.

Itoje always goes all out for the big games. This is a big game. England needs him in dynamo mode; he has to dominate once again like a candidate for the world rankings.

He and his teammates can catch New Zealand off guard. The hosts have barely met. They have a new coaching regime, new systems, a new captain, a new No. 10 and a new full-back. Players such as scrum-half TJ Perenara, Reece and Stephen Perofeta have not played a Test in two years. There is now no Aaron Smith, no Richie Mo'unga, no Sam Whitelock, no Brodie Retallick, no Will Jordan.

No aura? That has certainly faded. But of course the innate Kiwi pedigree remains. While they may lack collective cohesion, the All Blacks have a wide range of individual talent. Their catching and passing skills – particularly in tight spaces – remain the envy of the oval-ball world. Their decision-making under pressure is also superb, but they can be pressured into falling apart; see replays of that epic Yokohama game for details.

England have an exciting defensive line, including winger Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, that can damage New Zealand
They also have big-game player Maro Itoje (pictured), who must be in top form
Borthwick knows his team has a real chance to beat New Zealand and make history

England will launch another blitz led by Felix Jones and believe they can trouble McKenzie and Perofeta under the roof of the greenhouse, provided the visitors get a level front. But that is not certain.

New Zealand's side have been impressive since Jason Ryan arrived as forward coach. Twenty-one years after the famous 'white orcs on steroids' victory in Wellington, England must be careful not to neglect their fundamentals in their quest for attacking nirvana or they will be swept away.

No Borthwick team will ignore the basic building blocks and the eldest of his self-proclaimed 'old geezers', Dan Cole, is ready to add set-piece ballast after the break in partnership with Quins' promising star prop Fin Baxter, who makes his debut. England also have Tom Curry on the bench to keep a leash on and whose introduction should provide a timely boost.

At this site of English suffering for decades, the obvious hope and belief in the Red Rose ranks was much more than empty wishful thinking. On previous trips here, valiant failure would have been tolerated or even quietly celebrated, but not this time. Borthwick's men went in with their eyes open. What a chance to reverse history.