Among the favourite phrases of the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney, is “less is more”. The point being there is no need to shoehorn more fixtures into the rugby calendar to make it more profitable. There is a nod, too, to player welfare amid the concussion lawsuit but the idea is that there is more commercial appeal when something feels preciously rare.
It comes to mind because New Zealand’s visit to face England at Twickenham on Saturday is their first since 2018 and only their second since Ian Ritchie, one of Sweeney’s predecessors, told the All Blacks back in 2016 to “build a bigger stadium” rather than ask for more of the gate receipts.
Sweeney would probably prefer that sentiment be forgotten, that the All Blacks visit a little more often given the RFU will make considerably more than £10m from Saturday’s fixture. But the fact that they come so infrequently only adds to the allure.
For outside of a World Cup, this is the most lucrative of fixtures on the Test calendar. Some tickets are going for £179, yet the RFU could sell out multiple times over and any small talk about the cost of living crisis on the concourses will be drowned out by the ringing of cash registers – on such days, Twickenham sloshes in money. The plight of Worcester and Wasps brings to bear the financial problems of domestic rugby but Saturday’s fixture is the perfect illustration of why the private equity firms CVC, with the Six Nations (and so the RFU), and Silver Lake, with New Zealand, have seen potential in the sport.
Part of the glamour stems from the myth surrounding the All Blacks, and rest assured spectators will take to their seats a little earlier than usual in anticipation of the haka, all the more so when it is performed at Twickenham so rarely. Freddie Steward, England’s star performer in the emphatic seven-try win against Japan at the weekend and arguably ever since he made his debut in July 2021, alluded to the challenge that presents. “To be able to face the haka and things like that is just so exciting,” he said. “I’ll probably need to get over that stardom in the week so, come game-day, I am in a position where I am ready to perform.”
And when Eddie Jones spoke of his side “breaking history” on Saturday, that beating the All Blacks was not mission impossible, you sense that as much as he was referring to New Zealand’s formidable record against England he was equally getting at busting the myth, of not being weighed down by the added pressure that all of the above can bring. Because this current New Zealand side is, as Jones says, in a “redevelopment” period under Ian Foster. They lost their summer series against Ireland and though they won the Rugby Championship, they were beaten at home for the first time by Argentina. In other words, if Jones can strip away all the bells and whistles that accompany this fixture then the task is made considerably easier for his players.
To do that, Jones believes his squad must address the history before they seek to break it. “It’s talking about it to start with. Believing that there are parts of our game that are better than theirs and making sure that they understand where the All Blacks side is weak,” he said. “Even when the All Blacks were winning at 92% they still had weaknesses and you’ve got to be able to find those weaknesses. Like any team, if you dig down deep enough, make them scratch at the back of their head and make them think, ‘this isn’t how it’s supposed to be’ you can put them under pressure.”
While New Zealand have won 15 of the last 17 matches between the two sides, England produced their finest performance under Jones in the most recent meeting, in the 2019 World Cup semi-final. Back then Jones was determined to get on the front foot. He bought a samurai sword and sliced kiwi fruit in two in front of his players to hammer home how beatable the All Blacks were. There were also tales of spies watching training and there was their V-shaped response to the haka before kick-off. It remains to be seen what Jones has in store this week, but it is all designed to have the same effect.
“It’s always belief, there’s trust in the gameplan, there’s having rehearsed it enough so that you’re able to execute it,” he added. “If you look at that game [in 2019] we were able to execute our gameplan really well and it’ll be the same again next Saturday.”
The dominant win against an admittedly poor Japan side certainly helps, at least in shaking the defeat by Argentina out of England’s system. But Jones knows his team will not have the same level of set-piece and aerial dominance against New Zealand, which will make front-foot ball harder to come by. And as pleased as he is with the development of Jack van Poortvliet, Marcus Smith and Steward, it is an inexperienced “spine” with which to lock horns with the All Blacks.
It helps, however, having Owen Farrell, who will win his 100th England cap on Saturday, in form and Manu Tuilagi ready to slot back in while Jones will be tempted to recall Billy Vunipola and Jack Nowell, if the latter is deemed fit. “Whatever way we go we’ve got to be able to execute the gameplan,” said the head coach. “That comes down to the players having clarity about what we’re trying to do and having the understanding that the opposition will try and take it away from us.”