England in for All Blacks-fest
All Blacks haka (Getty Images)
See pics of Beast Mtawarira's boots to commemorate his 50th Test for the Boks.
LONDON, Oct 3 - Many people questioned the wisdom of England playing in New Zealand and Australia in June 2003 but landmark victories there convinced coach Clive Woodward and his players that they had nothing to fear and four months later they were world champions.
Current coach Stuart Lancaster faces a similar "got to beat the best" scenario ahead of the 2015 tournament after the announcement on Thursday that England will face the All Blacks four times in a row in 2014, three away in June and at Twickenham in November.
Good results against the world champions would do wonders for the confidence of his currently inconsistent team ahead of a tough pool 2015 World Cup stage that includes Twickenham matches against Australia and Wales.
A series of defeats, however, would obviously have the opposite effect, although with other fixtures against Australia, Samoa and South Africa to follow in November next year there would still be time to regain ground.
The proliferation of north v south internationals has undermined their importance but when Woodward's England travelled to New Zealand in 2003 such fixtures were still a very big deal.
England had finally overcome their dire record against the Tri-Nations giants and travelled on the back of eight successive victories against the All Blacks, South Africa and Australia, a level of performance unmatched ever by any European nation.
However, they had not won in New Zealand since 1973, their only previous away victory, and had never triumphed on Australian soil.
Silencing the doubters, England not only won 15-13 in Wellington but did so in heroic fashion, holding out with 13 men during a second-half siege after forwards Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio were sin-binned.
"I kept saying the All Blacks would have to play really well to beat us and we would have been hugely disappointed if we'd lost," Woodward said at the time as England enjoyed a period of unprecedented superiority.
"Suddenly we're coming out on top in these matches but I don't think you get lucky."
The body language of England's players told its own tale, as there were no joyous celebrations of an upset win, just solid handshakes after a job well done.
Having showcased their stubborn defence in New Zealand, a week later in Melbourne they turned on the style to hammer then-world champions Australia 25-14 in a performance widely considered to be the finest of Woodward's era.
That was England's first win over the Wallabies in Australia and their second came on Nov. 22 of that year when Jonny Wilkinson's extra-time drop goal made them the only northern hemisphere team to win the World Cup.
Lancaster's team have a long way to go to get anywhere near that level of consistency but as they showed when inflicting a record 38-21 defeat on the All Blacks at Twickenham last December, on their day they are capable of beating the best.
They face the current world champions again this November, along with games against Australia and Argentina, then travel to New Zealand for a three-test series next June.
The All Blacks will then be their opponents on Nov. 8 2014, followed by tests against South Africa (Nov. 15), Samoa (22) and Australia (29).
"To be able to take on these teams in successive weeks is ideal preparation for the World Cup and will tell us a lot about where we are one year out," Lancaster said of the 2014 November series in a statement.
"All four are tough opponents and we are looking forward to the challenge."