Time for England to deliver against All Blacks

THERE is still no show really quite like it.

England's Dylan Harley with Eddie Jones.

Admittedly, Australia bring that deep-seated rivalry, the bitter sniping and edge, and the Celtic nations all have their different allures.

However, for the connoisseurs, seeing the All Blacks arrive with all their strut and no little swagger is still the number one.

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It almost feels like PT Barnum should be at the centre of it all making the magic happen.

After a four-year hiatus, though, the world champions will appear again at Twickenham to the sounds of Sweet Chariot rather than any number from the ubiquitous The Greatest Showman soundtrack.

That said, Beauden Barrett – minus Hugh Jackman’s top hat – will be pulling the strings and, almost as an added bonus for the waiting audience, a certain Sonny Bill Williams will be in the ring as well.

That is the only special guest appearance, mind; England fans hoped to see Manu Tuilagi at last ready to re-emerge, like a caged circus tiger, after all his pent-up injury frustrations at Test level.

But that will have to wait at least another week. Japan beware.

How refreshing, though, to see Chris Ashton given his chance again.

The last time the flying winger, with his natural instinct to poach out a try, started for England was four years ago, just as long as Red Rose fans have waited to see their team in action against the All Blacks once more.

Head coach Eddie Jones spoke of his “gut-feeling” about how the Sale star – out of favour for so long even before his self-imposed exile in Toulon – could fare well versus these opponents.

He has history with them, of course, scoring in the famous 
38-21 win over the All Blacks at HQ in December 2012, the last time the hosts ruled supreme in this contest.

At 31, Ashton has some catching up to do so do not be surprised to see him quickly add to his impressive strike rate of 19 tries in 40 Test appearances.

As England fly-half Owen Farrell, his former Saracens colleague, attested: “If someone makes a break, he’ll be there. Chris is someone who works hard, you know where he is because he won’t shut up.

“Everybody knows what he is like in terms of wanting to score and the hard work that goes into putting himself into those positions.

“Hopefully we see that tomorrow (Saturday).”

And what of the action?

Yes, England are bereft of so much talent, so many injured personnel, but, as demonstrated against South Africa just a week ago, there is so much character and spirit within Jones’s side.

No one truly gives them much hope of defeating these stellar opponents, who have mastered the tightrope balancing act of Test match rugby for so long, but it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

There is a belief among the home side ranks that they can replicate what South Africa did just recently.

Let’s not forget, the Springboks brought the All Blacks to their knees just a few weeks ago.

Granted, they do not lose often – Steve Hansen’s side have lost just three of their other 28 matches over the past two years – but they can be got at.

They can be vulnerable, especially in the early stages of games.

If sides can limit their off-load game, too, they do sometimes show signs of frustrations.

Furthermore, for all he could become the first player to win the World Player of the Year for a third year running, Barrett’s actual goal-kicking is a fair way down the rankings of his international counterparts; England will not always be punished by his boot for any indiscretions that may occur during the forthcoming 80 minutes.

England have won just eight of the 40 meetings between the sides – a sobering statistic – and only one of the last 15.

But with the likes of Farrell, Dylan Hartley, Maro Itoje and Ben Te’o, they have enough quality to change all that and make this show great for England again.