Rugby

Game within the game: New Zealand, England gear up for pivotal test in the scrum

by John Pye

AP

It’s the contest within the contest. A collision between two masses of muscle, the scrum will be pivotal in the Rugby World Cup semifinal between two-time defending champion New Zealand and England, which prides itself on being dominant at the set piece.

England has never beaten New Zealand at the World Cup, and has had just on win in the last 16 head-to-head meetings — in 2012.

For England to break that streak, it will need its eight forwards — a combined 920 kg of manpower — to get on top in the scrum.

“Both teams are really going to climb into each other at set-piece time,” New Zealand’s assistant coach Ian Foster said on the eve of Saturday’s showdown at International Stadium Yokohama. “It’s a tactical battle in itself. That’s where the war’s going to be won or lost.”

The All Blacks scrum has improved under the guidance of Mike Cron, and the addition of Scott Barrett on the blindside flank will make it the biggest pack practical to meet England head on. Head coach Steve Hansen said his forwards didn’t get enough credit for their set piece, so here’s a chance.

The New Zealand forwards have a clear edge in experience, with 514 test caps to England starting pack’s 318. They’ve also got more exposure to the highest level. No. 8 and skipper Kieran Read and lock Sam Whitelock are playing their third World Cups and have never lost a game at the tournament.

Whitelook and Brodie Retallick are packing down together in the second row for the 54th time and, while the backrow has been reworked to include Barrett at No. 6 and Ardie Savea switching to the openside flank.

Loose-head prop Joe Moody’s No. 1 priority when he packs down against England’s Kyle Sinckler is to get immediately on top.

“Just looking forward to that battle and hopefully getting one up,” he said Friday. We’re facing “a big England forward pack, we know they’re going to be pretty direct and really want to take it to us.

“We’re going to have to be up for it in both attack and defense to be able to match fire with fire. It should be a big old ding-dong battle.”

None of the England players have featured in a World Cup semifinal, but that’s not bothering head coach Eddie Jones. His team led 15-0 in the last meeting before losing 16-15. He took the England job after the team’s pool-stage exit in 2015 and guided it on record-equaling 18-game winning streak.

The Vunipola brothers are starting for England, with Mako at loose-head and Billy at No. 8, where he has formed a strong combination with young flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.

England scrum coach Neal Hatley noted New Zealand’s improvement in the set piece but said his forwards were up for the challenge, particularly if it’s wet.

It rained heavily on Friday, but it was forecast to clear overnight. Wet weather would suit England, with its heavy reliance on the set piece, and considering New Zealand’s tendency to play expansively.

“They are a very good unit and the last two or three years is evidence of that,” Hatley said. “We have got everything done in the rain and we are used to those conditions where we come from. Even when we have been warm-weather training we have prepared with wet balls to make sure we are prepared for those conditions and it won’t be an issue.”

England lock Courtney Lawes said his team will benefit from the close call against New Zealand last time.

The 30-year-old, 79-test veteran was asked about an episode in the past, when Retallick couldn’t remember Lawes’ name ahead of a game. He suspects that won’t be a problem again.

“If they don’t know,” Lawes said, “they will tomorrow.”

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