The turbulence England have encountered over the past year means that mantle has been quietly passed onto next weekend’s encounter between Ireland and New Zealand, but black meeting white will be anything but grey today. It is still a mouthwatering prospect.
Rarity value is all too rare in professional sport – certainly in rugby union – and the four-year delay since these two sides last met give it a special resonance.
New Zealand’s view of today’s game against England as a delayed decider to the historic drawn 2017 Lions series may be questionable given the lack of Celts, but there is no doubting the thread from that tour that runs through it.
That shared experience not only supplies the All Blacks with their motivation, but the English Lions with concrete evidence that the world champions are not the supermen they so often seem.
“We spent six weeks in New Zealand, which is obviously a long time. It gave me a good understanding of the culture, of how they try to play the game, their strengths, of which there are a lot, but also their weaknesses,” said Maro Itoje, the Lion cub who became a cult hero on the tour.
“Rugby is part of the way of life over there. They live, eat and breathe rugby, so when you go up against that, you’re going up against very passionate people. They’re very skilled, smart players and they’re very accurate as well.
“It’s definitely a challenge for us. But I feel as if this team is primed and ready to go.”
Those involved in the second Test in Wellington, when Sonny Bill Williams was sent off by today’s referee Jerome Garces, tasted the sweet nectar of victory against the mighty All Blacks. It was, acknowledged Jamie George yesterday, the highlight of his career.
A win today, with all England’s absentees, might even trump that achievement but their chances are 20 per cent at best.
The resilience they showed in edging out South Africa last weekend will only take them so far against an All Blacks collective who remain a cut above the rest.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said: “We have natural athletes who want to run and carry the ball and pass the ball. They have terrific instincts to play what is in front of them.”
That makes for a potentially lethal cocktail, so there are two areas where England must be bang on the money.
It is essential to disrupt New Zealand but within that they have to be disciplined – in particular Itoje, who was sin-binned inside 20 minutes last week.
“The way I play is fairly on the line and I just have to react to the referee better and understand what he is and isn’t going to let go,” acknowledged Itoje.
“Every referee has slightly different interpretations and the type of player I am, I need to be competitive and abrasive but I need to adapt to the situation quicker than I did on the weekend.”
And they must produce more of a cutting edge.
“We need to be harsh on ourselves,” said attack coach Scott Wisemantel yesterday. “There are a finite number of chances in a game. You have to take them and that’s what the All Blacks are outstanding at. That’s why they’re the world’s best. We created four to six chances and we didn’t execute last week.”
Hence the call-up for Chris Ashton. “If someone makes a break, he’ll be there,” said stand-off Owen Farrell. “You know where he is because he won’t shut up.
“Everybody knows what he is like in terms of wanting to score and the hard work that goes into putting himself into those positions. Hopefully we see that.”
England need tries because, as sure as there is an apostrophe in Karl Tu’inukuafe, New Zealand will score them. Tries are the currency they trade in and they will probably be as eye-catching as the rookie prop’s moustache.
The clear sense at their Teddington base this week has been that after a four-year wait for England, the All Blacks are planning to put on a show. And no one in rugby does a show like the All Blacks.