England vs New Zealand provides both with the perfect World Cup litmus test
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England vs New Zealand is always a box office tie and this weekend's match up is no different
It is four years since New Zealand and England faced each other and a lot has changed for both sides in that time frame. That fixture, a 24-21 victory for the All Blacks in the 2014 Autumn Internationals, was England's fifth consecutive loss to New Zealand, one overseen by the now Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster.
That defeat was also England's fourth consecutive overall Test defeat, something which would have been unimaginable during the heady days of Eddie Jones' side's 18-match winning streak during the entirety of 2016 and part of 2017.
If 2016 was a year of heights then 2018 has most definitely been one of uncomfortable lows for Jones and England, who lost their final three Six Nations games (against Scotland, France and Ireland) in March, as well as two back-to-back tests against South Africa during their tour of the country a few months later.
A tight win against the Springboks will have restored some much needed confidence for Jones and co. but no one in the England set up will be under any illusions regarding the difficulty of the prospect which faces them on Saturday.
There will however be lessons which can be learned from their most recent opponents when taking on Steve Hanson's phenoms.
The Boks were the last side to beat New Zealand, by 36 points to 34 in September, and they did so by restricting them to few points opportunities and converting every single chance they had.
This is easier said than done though, but Jones' decision to start Owen Farrell at number 10 rather than 12 shows England's need and desire to compete with Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue in the middle of the park. With Farrell alongside Henry Slade and Ben Te'o, and with Manu Tualagi to come off the bench, Jones will be quietly confident with England's physicality at centre.
Jones' selection is an interesting one, and it is a team which is guaranteed to go over the line a number of times. But when it comes to playing against the All Blacks, that is rarely enough.
England will have to find a way to not only get over the line, but somehow stop the best attack in world rugby from doing so over and over and over again.
New Zealand come into the game with just one defeat in the year - the aforementioned loss to South Africa in Wellington - with their last win coming in a 10-try demolition of Japan in Tokyo last week.
That was a second string side featuring eight debutants, and far more familiar outfit will be expected to take to the pitch at Twickenham. In midfield, Sonny Bill Williams will partner Jack Goodhue - who recently saw the sights on an alternative tour of London - for only the second time, while the ludicrously talented (and decent footballer) Damien McKenzie will once again wear the number 15.
At fly-half Beauden Barrett - described by a former All Black this week as a "freak of nature"- will undoubtedly be one of the biggest dangers facing Eddie Jones' side, but as is always the case there is just as much danger focusing too much attention on Barrett and subsequently leaving New Zealand's other jewels unguarded.
If all of this sounds familiar it is because it is. Regardless of the line up, but particularly with their strongest possible fifteen, New Zealand are a team who refuse to compromise on their preferred style of play.
They will always play with the same level of pace and power, they will move the ball at pace and they will attack any gaps in the England defence or psyche.
They are acutely aware that there is no side in the world capable of stopping them when they're in full flow, and they know that the pressure is on England to put in a performance this weekend.
For both sides though this Test represents a welcome opportunity to see where they are ahead of the World Cup in a year's time. For England, pushing the All Blacks close and exposing unforeseen weaknesses will be deemed a success. For New Zealand, anything less than multi-try victory will be deemed underwhelming.
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