London - Questions about how much New Zealand has left in the tank for their last outing of the year against England on Saturday were underlined by a virus sweeping through the world champion squad.
Only winger Julian Savea and standby hooker Hika Elliot among management and the expanded 34-man squad escaped the 24-hour norovirus, which began infecting them in Cardiff last week. Coach Steve Hansen said on Thursday the worst had passed and he expected no withdrawals before the match at Twickenham.
But there were signs before training this week was swayed by diarrhoea and vomiting that the All Blacks could be flagging. Against Wales, New Zealand didn't score a point in the last quarter for the first time this year in a game they had won by half-time.
Fatigue was also apparent among fellow southern hemisphere rivals. Australia led Italy 22-3 after 30 minutes and barely won 22-19 in Florence. South Africa almost blew a 16-6 lead against England, and Argentina, at the end of their hardest year ever, was nowhere near as good in the loss to Ireland as they were against Wales or France.
"Hopefully, we have been smart enough to keep the tanks full to play well," Hansen said.
"We thought about a lot of the players and how they are after such a long season. We've recovered well as a group. We said we'd pick the best team, and we've done that. There's been a consistency through most of the season and we've tried to build the combinations, and if guys are fit and available we've tried to pick them."
Tiredness could be the only chink in the All Blacks' armour for England to exploit, because complacency won't be. A win for the All Blacks would mean:
- their first undefeated season since 1997, which they finished by coming back from 23-9 down to draw 26-26 with England.
- extend their unbeaten run to 21 Tests, two shy of the record of the great 1987-90 All Blacks.
- a fitting farewell for skipper Richie McCaw, who has received a holiday until July to freshen up.
England have spent the week convincing themselves the better team lost to the Springboks last Saturday, somehow overlooking that they never looked like scoring a try, was second-best at converting pressure into points, couldn't catch a pass, had a shambles of a lineout, and captain Chris Robshaw made bone-headed decisions for a second straight Test.
Coach Stuart Lancaster and the team defended Robshaw, putting his decision to opt for a penalty when they were down by four with two minutes to go, as growing pains.
But more pains are expected. Robshaw, not considered a specialist openside flanker, and Tom Wood will be under severe pressure at the breakdown from McCaw and Messam.
England won't field anyone with at least 50 caps after injured flyhalf Toby Flood was replaced by Owen Farrell, who has been shortlisted for world player of the year, as has peerless opposite number Dan Carter.
"I have been coming off the bench, but I feel I have been getting better and better as the weeks have been going on," said Farrell, who is coming back from a shoulder injury.
He's the only change to the starters who lost to the Boks, in a show of considerable faith by Lancaster. Brad Barritt, whose midfield partnership with Manu Tuilagi has been criticised for a lack of creativity, said they aren't intimidated by the All Blacks despite England having lost their past nine contests to New Zealand.
"We won't go in there thinking they are gods on a rugby field," Barritt said. "There's a huge amount of belief in our team. There is something special about each person. In order to be here you're a natural-born winner and you'll do anything to get to that position to win. This is a huge opportunity for us."
The All Blacks recalled veterans Carter, hooker Keven Mealamu and prop Tony Woodcock, subject to fitness tests. All of them had calf complaints. Brodie Retallick was also promoted to lock, giving New Zealand a total of 788 caps compared to England's 206.
Picking a full-strength All Blacks side paid respect to the threat posed by England.
"There's no better way for redemption when you've had a couple of defeats than to knock over a top team," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said. "It's going to be at least as tough as the Wales match from what we've seen."
The All Blacks won that tough one 33-10.Teams:
15 Alex Goode, 14
Chris Ashton, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Mike Brown, 10 Owen
Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Tom
Wood, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1
Substitutes: 16 David Paice, 17 David Wilson, 18
Mako Vunipola, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 James Haskell, 21 Danny Care, 22
Freddie Burns, 23 Jonathan Joseph
Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian
Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw
(captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen
Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock
Substitutes: 16 Dane
Coles, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Victor
Vito, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Ben Smith