All Blacks are in a state of flux, and England can take advantage

Ben Earl – England can target Test win in New Zealand this summer

For the England rugby team, free hits do not exist. That is not news to Steve Borthwick, the perfectionist head coach, who would never dream of allowing his team to take the field without a meticulous plan. Whether it succeeds is a different story.

This summer, Borthwick will take England to New Zealand for two Tests against the All Blacks for his first tour as head coach, having first taken on his predecessor, Eddie Jones, in Japan. England have never defeated New Zealand in a Test series – Borthwick captained England to a 2-0 loss on Kiwi soil in 2008. So even entertaining the notion of describing this tour as a free hit would border on perverse.

Sir Clive Woodward, on his first tour as the England head coach, nearly lost his job after taking an inexperienced squad to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in 1998. The aggregate score on the Tour of Hell was 328-88 against England and featured a match against a team called the New Zealand Rugby Academy.

Borthwick can ill afford a repeat of Woodward’s woes in 1998 but there are reasons for optimism within the English ranks. A series victory, with the second Test at fortress Eden Park, could be a stretch. But English rugby, on the field, at least, is in rude enough health to claim perhaps one victory in New Zealand this summer.

Not since the build-up to Martin Johnson’s victorious showpiece in 2003 – and only twice ever, with a win in 1973 – has an English side emerged victorious on Kiwi soil. Yet the altering landscape around both sides offers hope for Borthwick’s side.

England’s recent record says as much. They are unbeaten in their last two Tests against New Zealand, a win and a draw, which has only ever happened once before – a “streak” which stretches back to 2019. But even if England were to fall to a 2-0 series defeat, it would not have been due to them fearing the All Blacks’ aura.

England are a team on the up. The dashing way in which they turned their Six Nations around and took the game to both Ireland and France will be fresh in the minds of all supporters, but also of all coaches and players. In the latter stages of that tournament, there was an energy and ebullience to Borthwick’s side which had been lesser seen for years in the white jersey. Gems have been unearthed, too: Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Fin Smith and Theo Dan have the potential for greatness and the likes of Ollie Chessum, George Martin and Ben Earl have touched world class.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso –
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has been one of England's stand-out players - Getty Images/Shaun Botterill

It is worth remembering, too, that in 2014 a fledgling England squad led by Stuart Lancaster, featuring 14 uncapped players, lost the first two Tests in New Zealand by an aggregate score of 48-42 before succumbing 36-13 in the third. Marland Yarde ran over Richie McCaw to score. The cohort selected by Borthwick is likely to be more experienced and harmonious than that 2014 crop and yet look how they frightened one of this sport’s greatest ever sides.

There is also England’s thrilling, if flawed, Champions Cup challenge to consider. With Northampton and Harlequins operating on budgets which were significantly lower than Leinster and Toulouse respectively, they pushed the European giants all the way, playing a brand of scintillating rugby which one would not normally associate with the English game at international level.

There is nowhere near enough evidence to suggest that the All Blacks are a waning force but they are certainly a side in significant transition. Where England will have already played six matches by the time the two sides meet at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on July 6, New Zealand will have played zero. Scott Robertson, the boisterous, brainy new head coach of the All Blacks will want to impart his style and ethos onto the team. As with all the great sides, however, profound adjustments can take a while to bed in (just ask Sir Clive who, despite 1998’s disaster, managed to blood the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Josh Lewsey on that tour).

Robertson has concerns over fitness and availability of players, too, with question marks over Scott Barrett, Sam Cane and Finlay Christie. Will Jordan, Tamaiti Williams and Cam Roigard have all already been ruled out of the entire series while Shannon Frizell, Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith are all unavailable due to their contracts with Japanese clubs.

Of greater concern for New Zealand is that the Crusaders, their greatest franchise and the site of Robertson’s seven consecutive Super Rugby championships from 2017 to 2023, are struggling. They have won just two of their 10 Super Rugby matches since the start of the season. Granted, the Hurricanes and Blues are flying high, but the competition has not exactly been stiff in a championship which has severely degraded in both esteem and quality.

New Zealand might be in a state of flux, but it will still take a gargantuan effort for England to topple their hosts this summer. But, rather than fearing the worst, Borthwick’s side will travel with hope of ending 20 years of hurt against the world’s greatest rugby nation. Rather than a free hit and nothing to lose, England have everything to gain.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.