AOne of Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney’s favorite phrases is ‘less is more’. The point is, you don’t have to put more fixtures into the rugby schedule to make it more profitable. There’s also a nod to player welfare as part of the concussion trial, but the idea is that there’s more commercial appeal when something seems preciously rare.
It comes to mind because New Zealand’s visit to face England at Twickenham on Saturday is their first since 2018 and only their second since Ian Ritchie, one of Sweeney’s predecessors, told the All Blacks in 2016 to “build a bigger stadium” rather than ask for more gate receipts.
Sweeney would probably prefer that sentiment to be forgotten, for the All Blacks to surrender a bit more often given that the RFU will be earning a lot more than £10m from Saturday’s game. But the fact that they come so rarely only adds to the appeal.
Outside of a World Cup, it’s the most lucrative game on the Test calendar. Some tickets cost £179 but the RFU could sell out many times over and any little talk of the cost of living crisis in the halls will be drowned out by the ringing of cash registers – on these days Twickenham lose money. The fate of Worcester and Wasps capitalizes on the domestic rugby’s financial woes, but Saturday’s game is the perfect illustration of why private equity firms CVC, along with the Six Nations (and therefore the RFU), and Silver Lake, along with New Zealand, have seen potential in the sport.
Some of the glamor stems from the mythos surrounding the All Blacks, and rest assured that spectators will be seated a little earlier than usual in anticipation of the haka, especially as it is played so rarely at Twickenham. Freddie Steward, England’s star performer in the emphatic seven-Test win over Japan at the weekend and arguably since making his debut in July 2021, hinted at the challenge ahead. “Being able to take on the haka and things like that is so exciting,” he said. “I’m probably going to have to get over this stardom within the week, so come game day I’m in a position where I’m ready to play.”
And when Eddie Jones spoke of his team ‘breaking history’ on Saturday that beating the All Blacks was not mission impossible, you sense that even though he was referring to New Zealand’s formidable record against England , he was also trying to break the myth, not to be weighed down by the added pressure that all of the above can bring. Because this current New Zealand team is, as Jones puts it, in a period of “redevelopment” under Ian Foster. They lost their summer series to Ireland and although they won the Rugby Championship they were beaten at home for the first time by Argentina. In other words, if Jones can knock out all the bells and whistles that come with this game, it’s a lot easier for his players.
To do that, Jones believes his team needs to address history before looking to break it. “He talks about it to begin with. Believing there are parts of our game that are better than theirs and making sure they understand where the All Blacks team is weak,” he said. “Even when the All Blacks were winning by 92% they still had weaknesses and you have to be able to find those weaknesses. Like any team, if you dig deep enough make them scratch the back of their heads and make them think, “this is not how it should be”, you can put pressure on them.
While New Zealand have won 15 of the last 17 matches between the two teams, England had their finest performance under Jones when they last met, in the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup. , Jones was determined to put himself forward. He bought a samurai sword and halved kiwis in front of his players to show how beatable the All Blacks were. There were also stories of spies watching practice and there was their V-shaped response to the haka before kick-off. It remains to be seen what Jones has in store this week, but it’s all designed to have the same effect.
“It’s always the belief, there’s confidence in the game plan, there’s enough repetition to be able to execute it,” he added. “If you watch this game [in 2019] we executed our game plan very well and it will be the same next Saturday.
The dominating victory against an admittedly poor Japanese side certainly helps, at least to shake the loss to Argentina out of the English system. But Jones knows his side won’t have the same level of set-piece and aerial dominance against New Zealand, which will make the forward ball harder to find. And however pleased he is with the development of Jack van Poortvliet, Marcus Smith and Steward, he is an inexperienced ‘backbone’ with which to lock horns with the All Blacks.
It helps, however, to have Owen Farrell, who will earn his 100th England cap on Saturday, fit and Manu Tuilagi ready to return while Jones will be tempted to recall Billy Vunipola and Jack Nowell, if the latter is deemed fit. “Whichever way we go, we have to be able to execute the game plan,” the head coach said. “It comes down to the players clearly knowing what we are trying to do and understanding that the opposition will try to take it away from us.”