It is once again time for the All Blacks annual dosage of northern exposure. That’s right, the end of year tour is upon us once more and with it comes a month of tests which will see the world champions pit against Scotland, Italy, England and Wales.
It will be refreshing to see the men in black play some different opposition.
After a heavy diet of Sanzar competitions for the majority of the year, it has become somewhat tiresome to see New Zealanders only play against Australians and South Africans. Sure they may be their best competition, but it really does become somewhat boring to see the same players play against one another over and over.
From that point of view, the European Tour will be something of a refresher to New Zealand rugby fans. And for the players too, who will get to test their talents against a different group, travel to a different part of the world and play in countries where the game is played in a different way.
But still, the lop-sided historical record of past tours lingers, detracting somewhat from its appeal.
The last time the All Blacks lost a test match on a European tour was in 2002, when a virtual second string team was toppled by England 31-28. In the intervening years there was a draw against France in 2004 and a loss to a Barbarians team laden with Springboks and Wallabies in 2008, but not once have they been beaten.
This trend doesn’t look like it will change in 2012 and further emphasises the dominance the All Blacks seem to hold over European teams. They have the ability to adapt to the European style, whilst also bringing their own flair to the game and playing at a pace that their opponents can’t keep up with. Some might hold a counter opinion, but the results speak for themselves.
It isn’t hard to imagine a similar scenario playing out this time around either. Each of the European teams will be strong up front and will bring a good kicking game to the table, but the All Blacks' speed of play and high skill level will be too much for them to handle.
First stop is Scotland. This will be a walkover, as Scotland almost epitomises the above assessment. They have a strong tight five and will be spirited in close. On attack though they lack any sort of creativeness and don’t seem to be capable of scoring tries. They will struggle with the pace of the All Blacks and their defence out wide will be found wanting as was the case last time the two sides met in 2010. Fifty points isn’t out of the question here.
Next up is Italy who like Scotland will provide a challenge in the close situations but will struggle to do much else.
They could be awkward though. In recent years they have developed a game plan that makes it seem as though they are looking to ensure they finish with a respectable score line rather than actually winning. Their scrum is spearheaded by Martin Castrogiovanni who will be their most potent weapon, whilst the ball running of No. 8 Sergio Parrise will be of value as well. But it won’t be enough, and a similarly dominant performance by the men in black can be expected here.
The third game sees the All Blacks travel to Twickenham to take on England for the first real challenge of the tour.
It will be a challenge no doubt, despite not having beaten the All Blacks since 2003, England have always made the All Blacks work hard for their wins and have come out losers in a handful of close games.
They will also be looking to build on the positive foundations that were laid during the Six Nations. But it just seems unlikely they will do it this time. They lack a quality player in the No. 10 jersey— and given the importance of this man to England—this will prove telling.
The final match will be the toughest—a battle against the Six Nations champion Wales. They are a good team and could be the most likely to beat the All Blacks on an end of year tour for a number of years. Their forward pack is solid, with a reasonable tight five and an outstanding loose forward trio led by the breakdown maestro Sam Warburton, who was one of the form players at last year’s World Cup.
They also pose a threat out wide, with some very good backs that could prove to be a handful. Mike Phillips is as good as any halfback in the world at the moment, whilst Jamie Roberts would be ranked amongst the top midfielders with his ability to get his team on the front foot. There is some flair in the centre three-quarters as well, along with the talented Leigh Halfpenny at the back.
But still the All Blacks will enter as favourites. They have class all over the park and have quality players who are just as good, if not better, than the men they will mark.
Should they go through unbeaten, the All Blacks will finish 2012 without losing a game—a truly remarkable feat. At times they have looked sloppy, but it says a lot about the resilience of this team that despite playing below their best at times they were still able to see off their opponent’s challenges.
But the job isn’t yet done. Whilst on paper there may be some mismatches in these upcoming games, you can be sure each team will bring their best for the All Blacks.
And as we know only too well—anything can happen on the day.