Sam Warburton will lead an outstanding Wales loose forward
trio against the All Blacks. Photo Reuters
It is once again time for the All Blacks' annual dosage
of northern exposure.
That's right, the end-of-year tour is upon us once more and
with it comes a month of tests against Scotland, Italy,
England and Wales.
It will be refreshing to see the men in black play some
different opposition. After a heavy diet of Sanzar
competitions for the majority of the year, it has become
somewhat tiresome to see New Zealanders play against
Australians and South Africans.
Sure they may be their best competition, but it really does
become something of a bore to see the same players playing
against the same players.
From that point of view, the European tour will be something
of a refresher to New Zealand rugby fans. And undoubtedly for
the players too, who will get to test their talents against a
different group of players, travel to a different part of the
world and play in countries where the game is played in
But still the lop-sided historical record of these tours
lingers, somewhat detracting from its appeal.
The last time the All Blacks lost a test match on a European
tour was in 2002, when a virtual second-string team was
toppled by England 31-28. In the intervening years there was
a draw against France in 2004 and a loss to a Barbarians team
laden with Springboks and Wallabies in 2008, but not once
have they been beaten.
This trend doesn't look like changing in 2012 and further
highlights the dominance the All Blacks seem to hold over
European teams. They have the ability to adapt to the
European style, while also bringing their own flair to the
game and playing at a pace that their opponents can't keep up
There are those who would argue against this, but the results
speak for themselves.
It isn't hard to imagine a similar scenario playing out this
time around either. Each of the European teams will be strong
up front and will bring a good kicking game to the table, but
the All Blacks' speed of play and high skill level will be
too much for them to handle.
First stop is Scotland. This will be a walkover, as Scotland
almost epitomises the above assessment.
They have a strong tight five and will be spirited in close.
On attack though they lack any sort of creativeness and don't
seem to be capable of scoring tries. They will struggle with
the pace of the All Blacks and their defence out wide will be
found wanting as was the case last time the two sides met, in
2010. Fifty points isn't out of the question here.
Next is Italy, who, like Scotland, will provide a challenge
in the close situations but will struggle to do much else.
They could be awkward though. In recent years they have
developed a gameplan that makes it seem as though they are
looking to ensure they finish the game with a respectable
scoreline rather than actually winning.
Their scrum is spearheaded by Martin Castrogiovanni and will
be their most potent weapon, while the ball running of No 8
Sergio Parrise will be of value also. But it won't be enough
and a similarly dominant performance can be expected here.
For the third game the All Blacks travel to Twickenham to
take on England for the first real challenge of the tour.
It will be a challenge no doubt, despite not having beaten
the All Blacks since 2003, England have always made the All
Blacks work hard for their wins and have come out losers in a
handful of close games.
They will be looking to build on the positive foundations
that were laid during the Six Nations. But it just seems
unlikely they will do it this time. They lack a quality
player in the No 10 jersey and given the importance of this
man to England, this will prove telling.
The final match will be the toughest, a battle against the
Six Nations champions Wales. They are a good team and could
be the most likely to beat the All Blacks on an end of year
tour for a number of years. Their forward pack is solid, with
a reasonable tight five and an outstanding loose forward trio
led by the breakdown maestro Sam Warburton, who was one of
the form players at last year's World Cup.
However, they also pose a threat out wide, with some very
good backs that could prove to be a handful. Mike Phillips is
as good as any halfback in the world at the moment, while
Jamie Roberts would be ranked amongst the top midfielders
with his ability to get his team on the front foot.
There is some flair in the centre-threequarters as well,
along with the talented Leigh Halfpenny at the back.
But still the All Blacks will enter as favourites. They have
class all over the park and have quality players who are just
as good as, if not better than the men they will mark.
Should they go through unbeaten the All Blacks will finish
2012 without losing a game, a truly remarkable feat. At times
they have looked sloppy, but it says a lot about the
resilience of this team that despite playing below their best
at times they were still able to see off their opponents'
But the job isn't yet done. While on paper there may be some
mismatches in these upcoming games, you can be sure each team
will bring their best for the All Blacks. And as we know only
too well, anything can happen on the day.