By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – The probable return of Manu Tuilagi for Saturday’s clash with New Zealand has got England fans dreaming of 2012 when the mighty centre delivered the performance of a lifetime to inspire a 38-12 victory that sent Twickenham into delirium.
Eight months into Stuart Lancaster’s reign, England had just lost back-to-back home tests against Australia and South Africa while the world champion All Blacks were unbeaten in 20 matches and had not lost a November European game for a decade.
In an amazing match Tuilagi’s devastating running earned him a try and set up two more, but that day was to prove the high water mark of his and Lancaster’s careers to date.
Since then England have lost five matches against the All Blacks – Tuilagi playing in four of them including his last England start in 2014 – and the 2012 win remains their only success in their last 15 meetings.
The last of those was in November 2014 when England lost 24-21 at Twickenham and since then, and the subsequent World Cup failure, their stock under Eddie Jones has risen and fallen.
Two years ago the world was desperate to see the two top-ranked teams meet but since England’s slide into five successive defeats it is next week’s Ireland versus New Zealand encounter that pits numbers one and two against each other.
England, however, go into the game on a positive note after a second successive victory over South Africa where the absence of a host of first-choice players was a blessing in disguise for Jones as several of the stand-ins showed they had what it takes.
Tuilagi was named among the replacements but withdrew due to a groin strain. He is expected to return on Saturday when Jones knows a massive step up in quality will be needed if England are to claim what would be their eighth victory in 41 meetings.
“You’ve got to play a certain way against them (New Zealand) then you’ve got to be good enough to score points,” Jones said this week. “We’ve got to be absolutely brutal up front and clinical when we get opportunities.”
The challenge facing England is underlined by the fact that the All Blacks’ crushing 69-31 win over Japan, achieved by a second/third string team, on Saturday completed a run of 100 tests from the start of the 2011 World Cup in which they have won an astonishing 90, drawn three and lost seven.
In the same period the next best record belongs to England, with a 70 percent win rate from 82 games.
One of the few blips in New Zealand’s domination came in the drawn series against the British & Irish Lions in 2017 and Jones, who coached Australia to five wins in 11 tests against the All Blacks, including the 2003 World Cup semi-final, has tapped into the English members of that squad for some tips.
“They put a lot of pressure on the All Blacks in areas they didn’t enjoy – there’s a bit to be learnt there,” said Jones, who will also have been encouraged by South Africa’s recent win and agonising near miss against them.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said on Monday he had a deep respect for Jones and that they speak on the phone regularly.
“He’s got a tremendous work ethic and through that he will have identified some areas he’ll want to try to target,” he said. “Does that give him any better idea how to beat us than anyone else? Maybe – but there are a lot of good coaches out there.
“To win a test match against a good opponent you’ve got to do your homework and things have to fall your way a little bit. He’s had some success against New Zealand in the past, but hopefully he doesn’t get any on Saturday.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris)