Don't write off England: Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick. Photo: Getty Images
Sean Fitzpatrick. Photo: Getty Images
Don't write off England at Twickenham. That's the grounding message from All Blacks great Sean Fitzpatrick.

Like all rugby enthusiasts, Fitzpatrick can't wait to witness the All Blacks truly tested in England and Ireland.

But while most expect the All Blacks to swiftly bring Eddie Jones and England back down to earth following their controversial, valve-releasing 12-11 win over the weakened Springboks last week, Fitzpatrick is more cautious.

Based in London for 13 years now, where he is heavily involved with the Harlequins club that shares a partnership agreement with New Zealand Rugby, Fitzpatrick is well placed to assess the challenge England pose on home soil, in-front of 80,000 passionate, signing souls.

Fitzpatrick had to wait six years after test debut for a first crack at England in 1991, finishing his illustrious career with two wins and one loss against the Red Rose.

"I wouldn't underestimate them," the former All Blacks captain, who played 92 tests between 1986 and 1997, warned. "Playing at Twickenham is not easy. It's a hard place to win. You're playing a side that's under pressure and there's a lot of young kids who have been given an opportunity.

"Jones has made it quite clear that he's targeting the World Cup and this is a development phase but he's got to win at least two, and maybe sneak another, for it to be a successful November, otherwise he's going to come under extreme pressure.

"He knows that, the players know that.

"Eddie has been forced to make changes through injuries, and there may be players who could prove to be a huge success come World Cup 2019."

Fitzpatrick was hugely impressed with the All Blacks Rugby Championship. He singled out their supreme fitness; described prop Karl Tu'inukuafe as a diamond, praised Ardie Savea's rise and Richie Mo'unga's influential cameo off the bench in the great Pretoria escape.

"Steve Hansen probably went into the Championship knowing 40 players he had for the World Cup and didn't really expect to expand on that group. The beauty of what's happened is he's got another five or six who stuck their hand up.

"I loved the rebirth of energy from South Africa that's been lacking, unfortunately, for a number of years."

The next two weeks would be the prefect preparation for the World Cup, revealing plenty about which All Blacks are ready to chase a third successive crown in Japan.

"The challenge is going to be back-to-back; how they're going to manage the players through England and then going to play the second best team in the world which we've struggled with in current times.

"For me, that's going to be really fascinating. It's an opportunity to see what players have got the bottle for test rugby at the highest level.

"When you look at 2015 we had two players in every position. Look at the World Cup final – any one of those players could have started and we wouldn't have had much drop in performance, if any, and that's what we need. Teams that win World Cups have depth. That's what New Zealand is showing at the moment."

Depth was the defining difference between England and Ireland at present, too.

In this regard, New Zealand coach Joe Schmidt deserved every accolade for guiding Ireland to such a threatening position.

"Joe has done an amazing job developing their squad. Depth there is phenomenal now. It just shows the benefit of having central contracts because the players get looked after.

"That's where England struggles. They're probably never going to win another World Cup until they centralise their players.

"Ireland will be a massive challenge, and that's what we want. We want to be tested."

Reflecting on his many playing experiences, Fitzpatrick felt his era of the '80s and '90s struggled with England, primarily due to their contrasting style and lack of familiarity.

In all his 128 matches in black, of which only two came off the bench, Fitzpatrick faced the Home Nations 21 times, quite staggering given the now yearly frequency of northern tours.

"We didn't really play anyone from the Northern Hemisphere. They were different in those days in the way they scrummaged. The attritional game in England is different to what we do in New Zealand, especially as a forward."

While in its infancy, the partnership between Quins and NZR could, therefore, benefit both parties when player exchanges soon commence.

"It's a real positive in terms of having a controlled environment where we know they are going. It's still a commercial arrangement but we know what the training regimes are; we know they're being looked after.

"I don't think that's the case with a lot of the clubs they go to, and I'm sure a lot of the players would say exactly that.

"The biggest thing for players today is playing in a World Cup. If we can control that cycle, maybe give players two years playing in Europe in between, rather than letting them go and then it's a toss of a coin whether they're going to comeback or not.

"I always look at Carl Hayman, Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, some of the best players in the world, and we don't see them playing on the international stage.

"It's quite mature in terms of being in the best interests of both organisations and ultimately better for the game globally."

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