By Mitch Phillips
TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) – England are tapping into the experience of the many members of their squad who were on the drawn British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017 to help formulate a plan to beat the All Blacks in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final.
There were 16 England players originally selected for that tour, 13 of whom are in the current World Cup squad, and coach Eddie Jones has had each of them produce a personal dossier on the things they learned from the series.
Chief amongst them, according to winger Anthony Watson, is that the world’s most successful rugby team are mortal men, who happen to have a fantastic playing record.
“I was never too fazed by the whole mystique of the All Blacks,” said Watson, who played all three Lions tests on the wing. “I respect the prolonged success they’ve had as a team, but the whole aura that surrounds them and the invincible stuff – I never bought into that.
“They are rugby players and we’re rugby players. We work very hard and they work very hard. They are definitely beatable.”
They might be, but not very often by England, who have won a measly seven of their 41 meetings and only one of the last 16.
Jones, who masterminded Australia’s surprise victory over the All Blacks in the 2003 semi-finals, is another who does not buy into the aura – so much so that he insists on referring to them only as “New Zealand”.
“Our guys went down there, played in their back yard,” he said. “They know they’re human. They bleed, they drop balls, they miss tackles like every other player.”
One of the key moments of that series was when Sonny Bill Williams was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Watson in the second test, which the Lions won. But the winger said he bore absolutely no grudge against him.
“He was just doing what he thought was right at the time, but he apologised the day after and I saw him in Fiji two or three weeks after the tour as well,” Watson said, in reference to their random meeting when both were on holiday.
“I know it was a massive swing of momentum in terms of the test, but I didn’t see it as the big deal that was made out – that there was a massive drama and we were going to hate each other for the rest of our lives.
“He’s a really nice bloke and we just talked about all kinds of stuff – rugby and family. We didn’t talk about the tackle.”
Another player Watson is set to renew acquaintance with on Saturday is winger Sevu Reece, who played for the Provincial Barbarians in the first game of the tour.
“I remember thinking he was a class player,” said Watson, who focused his Lions report to Jones on the New Zealand wide back three. “He had good feet and was very strong, and it’s the same with George Bridge. Give either of those two too much space and they can cause difficulties.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Hugh Lawson)