All Blacks: Has Vern Cotter provided a Blue-print for the English?

Analysis – England have already fired a shot in the psychological war leading up to the first test, with coach Steve Borthwick naming his side two days before the All Blacks do. Borthwick’s forwards are big, experienced and improving. His backs have a tinge of the unknown about them – back three George Furbank, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Tommy Freeman have 23 tests between them, a mere 90 less than replacement prop Dan Cole.

Then there’s the Marcus Smith factor. It’s actually a situation that would be familiar to many New Zealanders, because all you need to do is swap his name with Damian McKenzie and you realise we’ve been having more or less the same discussion regarding just how to get the best out of both on a test match rugby field.

Just how those two square off will be fascinating, but this one will be won and lost up front. Borthwick’s beefed up his front row with Joe Marler and Will Stuart, the latter scored two tries last time he played the All Blacks while the former’s reputation for making remarks caught on the referee’s mic unfairly overshadows the fact that he’s played 94 tests. George Martin and Maro Itoje are a formidable second row, while it doesn’t get any easier in the loose forwards with Chandler Cunningham-South, Sam Underhill and Ben Earl lining up to start.

If the thought of a very big pack playing direct rugby and using its size to simply steamroll over its opposition sounds familiar, it’s because that’s exactly what the Blues did to win a Super Rugby Pacific title just a fortnight ago. It was telling that most NZ rugby fans took a while to realise just what Vern Cotter’s plan had brought to the perennially underperforming side, or more accurately what it had taken away.

Channels were narrowed considerably; any sort of invention or instinct was curbed until the ball was safely through at least half a dozen phases and every player was drafted into a physical role around the ruck. Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta did an awful lot of kicking before pulling the trigger on their backline, and it says a great deal that their leading try scorer was number eight Hoskins Sotutu.

Hoskins Sotutu of the Blues scores a try.

Scott Robertson has overlooked Sotutu for selection in his squad, along with a few other worthy Blues players, a clear sign that he wants to implement a style that moves away from what the Blues had been running. Which is understandable, he’s won seven Super Rugby titles himself doing it his own way and doesn’t need to copy anyone.

But given that Cotter’s style absolutely wiped out a Cortez Ratima and McKenzie-piloted Chiefs side in the final, it’s highly likely that it didn’t escape Borthwick’s attention. That sort of pressure is something that has been the one thing McKenzie has unfortunately wilted under, something that will cost the All Blacks if they can’t get off to a fast start.

Cotter’s plan appeared unsubtle, but it was reliant on key communication inside the opposition half and a clear plan to target the 15 line to launch their strike packages. English halfback Alex Mitchell was almost the difference between his side and the Springboks in an incredibly tense World Cup semi final last year and will be a vital part of their chances on Saturday night, his linking play with his forwards has the potential to disrupt a fresh All Black defensive pattern.

We’ll have a clearer picture of what may happen when Robertson names an All Black side for the first ever time on Thursday. He has some big men at his disposal too, just how he uses them will may end up being the difference between winning and losing.

All Blacks v England

Kick-off: 7.05pm, Saturday 6 July

Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

Live blog coverage on RNZ Sport

All Blacks: TBC

England: 15. George Furbank, 14. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, 13. Henry Slade (vice-captain), 12. Ollie Lawrence, 11. Tommy Freeman, 10. Marcus Smith, 9. Alex Mitchell 8. Ben Earl (vice-captain), 7. Sam Underhill, 6. Chandler Cunningham-South, 5. George Martin, 4. Maro Itoje (vice-captain), 3. Will Stuart, 2. Jamie George (captain), 1. Joe Marler (vice-captain)

Bench: 16. Theo Dan, 17. Fin Baxter, 18. Dan Cole, 19. Alex Coles, 20. Tom Curry, 21. Ben Spencer, 22. Fin Smith, 23. Ollie Sleightholme

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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