Former England international Tom Palmer remembers when All Blacks captain Richie McCaw – arguably one of the greatest players the game has ever produced – struggled to even stand out in their school side.
Veteran second-row Palmer may have fashioned his game in the Broad Acres, being spotted at Leeds University before breaking into Leeds Tykes’ team and going on to win silverware with both them and Wasps.
But his peripatetic nature saw him born in London, grow up in Kenya and Edinburgh, while he has just taken up a contract at Gloucester having also featured with Stade Francais in Paris.
But, before he turned professional, he honed his game in, of all places, Dunedin, the rugby-obsessed city on the south island of New Zealand.
It is, of course, where England, augmented with five new arrivals after last week’s narrow first Test defeat, will seek to overcome the world champions for the rarest of victories this morning.
As a teenager, Palmer spent 18 months there, “enjoying himself” at Otago Boys High School, where, among his colleagues was McCaw, the legendary openside now revered around the globe.
But the 35-year-old told The Yorkshire Post: “I don’t think anyone at school would have picked Richie out as someone who’d have such an incredible career.
“He was always a very good player but he was very young for his year so he’d not grown out as much as some others.
“There were other guys who people had higher expectations for. But, later, Richie got into the New Zealand Under-19s and really made a name for himself before going on to be the best player in the world.
“I was good friends with Richie. I had 18 months over there before going to uni and it was a great experience rugby-wise playing at a much higher standard than I’d ever experienced.
“And they are rugby-mad in Dunedin and all around Otago. I remember going up to stay with Richie’s family during the holidays once.
“I could hardly go back to Scotland for a week and often I’d get invited to one of the lads’. They’re all big farm boys and for me – a city boy who loves the country – it was great going up to Richie’s place, meeting his family, going out shooting and stuff like that.
“I’ve caught up with him since over the years when we’ve played each other in Test matches. He’s still going strong and it’d be foolish for anyone to write him off.” There is a school of thought this great All Blacks side – with McCaw nearing 34 and plenty others of a similar age – has reached its zenith and are, indeed, vulnerable. England, certainly, were buoyed a week ago when their under-strength side were only denied a famous result in Auckland by Conrad Smith’s 78th minute try when the heroic tourists were down to 14 men.
Dominant in the set-piece – it is no surprise Stuart Lancaster has only made one change to the pack bringing in Tom Wood for James Haskell – steadfast in defence and showing plenty of dare with the ball, there was so many positives.
With the addition now of Six Nations centre pairing – the Yorkshireman Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees – plus the restoration of first choice half-backs Owen Farrell and Palmer’s ex-Leeds team-mate Danny Care, it is felt Lancaster’s side can push on and deliver that victory their efforts warranted seven days ago.
But Palmer, who never defeated the All Blacks before winning the last of his 42 Test caps against Australia in 2012, remains wary.
“I actually think it will be harder to win this game even though they’ve got the boys in from the Premiership final,” he said.
“Last week was the first time the All Blacks side had played together since last November – nearly seven months ago.
“England have had the Six Nations since. We’ve seen it in previous years where France and Ireland have gone close in the first game but then lost afterwards.
“The All Blacks will be better this time. It should be a great game, though, as England will be stronger, too. Playing Manu Tuilagi on the wing is a very big call. I think that’s a risky selection moving him from centre. It’s very different defending out there compared to centre and the whole back three defend together.
“You have to be good under the high ball as well as the All Blacks like to box-kick out of defence and Aaron Smith is fantastic at that. I think they’ll target Tuilagi there.
“I think it’s tough on James Haskell missing out too and not just because he’s my mate from Wasps. I thought he played really well last week and gave the back-row real balance though I am glad Rob Webber – who was in the Leeds academy when I was there and played with me at Wasps – has retained his spot at hooker as he had a great game.
“What Lanny’s done for England, though, is exceptional even if it’s not been great for me!
“He’s gone for a lot of younger guys since taking over, bringing us out of the shambles of that 2011 World Cup, and it’s paid off.”
Weirdly, Palmer could have been an All Black himself. He played alongside Carl Hayman and Jerry Collins for New Zealand Schoolboys during that stay.
“It was v Wales at Eden Park, a curtain-raiser to the All Blacks v South Africa,” he recalled.
“Riki Flutey was in there too and he taught me the Haka. They did want me to stay but it all happened a little too late – two weeks before I was due to come back for uni’ and my visa had run out.
“I probably would have considered it...”