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England face rugby's ultimate challenge in Auckland
The scale of the task facing England over the next three weekends is encapsulated by a surprising claim from one of their all-time greats.
You’d think the career highlight of Will Greenwood – sorry, 2003 World Cup-winning centre Will Greenwood, to give him his full title – would be fairly obvious.
But Greenwood has actually identified something else from that glorious year as his greatest achievement in rugby: beating New Zealand in New Zealand, something England have only ever done twice.
England’s 15-13 victory in June 2003, despite being down to 13 men for 10 minutes with both Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio in the sin-bin, was one of the key staging posts for their famous victory in Australia a few months later.
Asked what had been going through his head as England’s six-man pack somehow clung on during a series of five-metre scrums on their own tryline, captain Martin Johnson memorably replied: “My spine.”
England head coach Stuart Lancaster, who has selected a new-look side for Saturday’s first Test in Auckland, knows his players have their work cut out to follow in Johnson and Greenwood’s footsteps.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than playing New Zealand at Eden Park, where they haven’t lost in 20 years, but those selected know what they have to do,” said Lancaster, who led England to a famous 38-21 victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012.
“New Zealand were unbeaten last season and will be confident going into the game but we’re pretty confident we’ll give them a real good test.”
Injury and the late arrival of players involved in last weekend’s Premiership final have forced Lancaster’s hand in selection, but he stressed his faith in the players who will face an All Blacks side with 779 Test caps.
England’s youthful line-up features less than 300 caps, with Freddie Burns selected at fly-half for his fourth cap, while former rugby league international-turned union centre Kyle Eastmond and winger Marland Yarde earn their third caps.
“Freddie’s not had the best season by his own standards but he’s certainly come good towards the end of it,” said Lancaster. “As soon as he knew he was in the mix he’s just grown into the role and shown great leadership.
“With Kyle, I enjoy having another ball player at 12 who can put people through holes but also be a running threat himself. He’ll open up our attacking game.”
Fly-half Danny Cipriani is on the bench, his first involvement in an England match-day squad since 2008, alongside two players – Worcester full-back Chris Pennell and Harlequins hooker Joe Gray – who could make their Test debuts.
Get behind-the-scenes news with the England team on tour in New Zealand with Player Diary from O2 in partnership with England Rugby, at www.O2InsideLine.com