Rugby: Europe lies ahead for ABs

Can Ben Smith suggest he is ready to emulate his namesake Conrad on the All Blacks' European tour?
Can Ben Smith suggest he is ready to emulate his namesake Conrad on the All Blacks' European tour?
It has been a decade and 24 tests since the All Blacks were beaten in Europe.

Two years ago they lost to the Wallabies in one of their Hong Kong stopovers, although that does not fall into the European results chart.

Any pain in that list was last felt at Twickenham in 2002, when the bulk of the England side who claimed the World Cup the following year struggled past a clutch of All Black novices 31-28.

Coach John Mitchell had left 21 senior players at home to rest and get over injuries and his new-look squad held in well against England, drew with France and then romped home against Wales.

Two of the All Black tourists who left last night for their four-test trip in Europe made their test debut in the loss to England.

Ali Williams made his debut at lock while Andrew Hore, in his first test start, opposed the huge Steve Thompson at the heart of a powerful England scrum.

A few of that England side, such as Mike Tindall and Jonny Wilkinson, are still lurking on the rugby fringes but most have been out of the game for some time.

The week after that loss, the All Blacks drew with France to start their unbeaten run.

The only near mishap came two years later when Richie McCaw had his first run as captain at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and his side scraped home by a solitary point 26-25.

Current tourists Daniel Carter, Piri Weepu, McCaw, Williams, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu started that test while Ma'a Nonu came off the bench.

Since then there has barely been a glitch as the All Blacks have taken their brand of rugby and winning ways through Europe.

There was an unsightly en route blemish in 2010 when they fell to a careless 26-24 loss to the Wallabies.

Now the All Blacks are off again with all the smart money on them jetting out of Heathrow early next month after four more wins to finish their season.

They intend using mix'n'match sides when they tangle with Scotland then Italy before they put out their strongest combinations for the meetings with Wales and England.

The theory goes that there will be a quartet of Ws in the results column.

It's a fair call but victory also appeared certain a fortnight ago against the Wallabies. That 18-all stalemate in Brisbane stymied the All Blacks' tilt at a world record run of victories, which should have been theirs in Rome.

That hiccup has taken a little sting out of the tour as it appears there is little room for many changes in the top XV.

Sam Cane will get some work in anticipation of him deputising for McCaw during the captain's sabbatical and there will be interest in the time given to new faces Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Dane Coles.

It will be fascinating to see whether Beauden Barrett makes any inroads or gets much of a chance to challenge Aaron Cruden as the backup five-eighths to Daniel Carter.

Julian Savea should have a strong joust with Hosea Gear for the left wing role while the blindside scrap amongst Liam Messam, Victor Vito and Adam Thomson remains the one really clouded selection area.

Where else? Can Ben Smith suggest he is ready to emulate his namesake Conrad or is that a step too far this season?

Answers to some of those questions will bring some added spark while a defeat - well that will be a story and a half.

- Wynne Gray of the NZ Herald

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