By Christian Radnedge
PARIS (Reuters) - England can be the team to stop the All Blacks winning a third successive Rugby World Cup, but pressure could weigh them down if they do not get positive results in the autumn internationals.
That is the view of former New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick, who says that while England can be one of the main threats at next year's showpiece event in Japan, it depends how they fare against South Africa, the All Blacks, Japan and Australia next month.
England coach Eddie Jones is due to announce his squad for the Twickenham tests on Thursday but his plans have been hit by a string of injuries to key players like forwards Billy and Mako Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and Joe Launchbury.
Jones has faced criticism this year after his side lost five test matches out of eight, including two defeats in South Africa and a disappointing Six Nations campaign.
But Fitzpatrick does have sympathy for 58-year-old Australian, who initially took an England side who went out in the pool stage of the 2015 World Cup on home soil on an 18-game winning run.
"I think he (Jones) did a good job, he turned around the fortunes of the players that were there in 2015 and not many players changed and they started winning games,” the former New Zealand hooker told Reuters on Wednesday at the Laureus Sport for Good Global Summit.
“Whether they were able to sustain that level of intensity on and off the field, that’s where they seem to have fallen down and with the injuries now he’s running out of time in terms of 10 months out (from the World Cup) not knowing what your combinations are, it is a concern.
“He’s put real pressure on himself to get some results and if he goes through the autumn and loses a few of those games, they’re going to be under real pressure," Fitzpatrick added.
“But I still believe they’ve got the players to be serious contenders at the World Cup.
The 55-year-old Fitzpatrick sees the main threat for the All Blacks coming from the northern hemisphere.
"If England can get the combinations right, if they pick the right players and they’re able to rest their players, there’s still a lot of time left,” he said.
Fitzpatrick, who won the inaugural World Cup with New Zealand in 1987, believes England have issues to overcome despite their wealth of resources as they bid for a second World Cup triumph after lifting the trophy in 2003.
“Even though they have the most players in the world, they have more money than anyone else, the pressure that is put on the elite players (in England) is quite significantly different to the other top nations in the world,” Fitzpatrick said.
“Look at the All Blacks, look at Ireland – there’s a reason they are one and two in the world at the moment and that’s the way they look after their players… So that’s an issue that Eddie’s got to deal with and he knows that.”
If England were looking for inspiration, they need only cast their minds back to last month when South Africa stunned New Zealand 36-34 in the Rugby Championship in Wellington - their first away win over the All Blacks in almost 10 years.
There was also Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand in November, 2016 which ended an 18-game winning run for Steve Hansen’s side.
“South Africa beating the All Blacks in the Championship has given 26, 27 South African players the belief that they can beat the All Blacks where no-one in that team had beaten the All Blacks before. The same with Ireland when they beat the All Blacks. A lot of the game today is about belief,” Fitzpatrick said.
New Zealand still wrapped up their sixth southern hemisphere title this month and remain the team to beat at the first World Cup held in Asia.
Not that Fitzpatrick thinks his compatriots are complacent as they aim to win an unprecedented third successive world title.
“The All Blacks selectors and the senior players are very much on-tune, they know what it takes to win a World Cup. Ninety percent of them have all done it,” he said.
“But it’s going to be very difficult and they will not underestimate the challenge that is put on them.
“The World Cup is a funny old thing, there are moments that change games and that can happen we’ve seen it previously. But, at the moment, you have to say the All Blacks are the team to beat.”
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge,; Editing by Ed Osmond)