England v New Zealand, Twickenham, November 21
England have a mountain to climb
Graham Jenkins
November 19, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson casts an eye over his players, England training session, Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, England, November 18, 2009
Can England boss Martin Johnson lift his side for the challenge of the All Blacks? © Getty Images
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Rewind to: Against all odds
Players/Officials: Sir Graham Henry | Martin Johnson
Tournaments/Tours: New Zealand tour
Teams: England | New Zealand

England welcome New Zealand to Twickenham on Saturday with the clash shaping up as a damage limitation exercise for the hosts.

Martin Johnson's side succumbed to Australia in their opening November Test with a turgid display and although they returned to winning ways against Argentina last weekend, the result was the only positive with another inept performance drawing stinging criticism from all quarters.

England have been labelled as predictable by their rivals and their perceived lack of direction and propensity for harmless lateral movement drew boos from the Twickenham faithful last weekend. Johnson has admitted his side will not escape with a repeat performance against the more ruthless All Blacks and reports suggest a similar result will not only serve as the conclusion to their autumn campaign but may also bring the curtain down on a number of international careers.

New Zealand enter their latest tour showdown on the back of an equally unimpressive performance from their second string, albeit a victorious one, against Italy in Milan. But they remain undefeated since conceding the Tri-Nations crown to South Africa with notable victories over Australia in Tokyo and Wales in Cardiff since leaving home. And while England continue to struggle with a debilitating injury list, New Zealand's rested stars are set to return for their defence of the Hillary Shield. As a result the mountain facing England is one that even Sir Edmund may have struggled to conquer.

Johnson has refused to ring the changes in an attempt to shake his side out of their creative stupor with just three fresh names brought into the mix. And one of those is the not-so-fresh 36-year-old Wasps lock Simon Shaw. The British & Irish Lions international displaces Louis Deacon in the second row in the only change to a pack that held its own against a formidable Pumas forward unit.

The out-of-sorts Shane Geraghty pays for his failure to spark the England backline into life and makes way for the strong-running Ayoola Erinle at inside centre while flanker Tom Croft caps a memorable week that saw him nominated for the IRB Player of the Year award by being dropped to the bench in favour of another veteran in the form of Joe Worsley.

Unsurprisingly Johnson has also opted for a positional change in the back three after Ugo Monye's horror show last weekend. He is offered a chance to redeem himself on the wing with Mark Cueto returning to the No.15 shirt for the first time since the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Mathew Tait is poised for his first appearance of the autumn from the bench.

The All Blacks have recalled their big guns for the game with 13 changes from the side that laboured against Italy. The return of fly-half Dan Carter from suspension is arguably the most significant and the Crusaders' playmaker will partner scrum-half Jimmy Cowan.

The fixture is set to be a significant one for Carter no matter the result with the 27-year-old poised to eclipse Andrew Mehrtens in New Zealand's all-time scoring charts. Carter needs only two points pass Mahrtens' record of 967 and cement his status as one of the greats.

Tony Woodcock will win his first cap on tour after recovering from a back problem and he is joined in the front-row by Owen Franks with the duo charged with shoring up an All Blacks scrum that struggled at times against the Azzurri. Tom Donnelly, one of two survivors from last weekend, and Brad Thorn start in the second-row while Adam Thomson has beaten Jerome Kaino to the blindside jersey. Richie McCaw and Kieran Read return to complete the back-row.

Exciting youngster Zac Guildford will win his second cap on the right wing alongside fullback Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu while Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu will link up again in the centres.

The fact that New Zealand have publicly admitted that their eagerly-awaited meeting with France in Marseille is their main focus on tour offers a further indictment on an England side that has fallen a long way in recent months. But expect nothing but the best from the All Blacks as they look to heap woe on the hosts and extend their own winning run at England's HQ - with their most recent success a dominant 32-6 victory against an ill-disciplined outfit this time last year.

Although Johnson is happy to win ugly he is highly unlikely to be able to play that 'get out of jail' card this weekend with New Zealand smelling blood in the water. England have brought the microscope upon themselves with two abject displays but with defeat widely considered a certainty, a battling display showing more than just glimpses of promise could prove just as valuable.

On the eve of the campaign the task facing Johnson and his players, 12 months into the former England captain's tenure, was to take a step forward on the road that leads to Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand. Sadly, they have lost their way and appear to be heading backwards in terms of performance, style and confidence. The challenge now is simply to get back on the road.

England: Mark Cueto; Matt Banahan, Dan Hipkiss, Ayoola Erinle, Ugo Monye; Jonny Wilkinson, Paul Hodgson, Tim Payne, Dylan Hartley, Duncan Bell, Simon Shaw, Steve Borthwick (capt), Joe Worsley, Lewis Moody, James Haskell

Replacements: Steve Thompson, David Wilson, Louis Deacon, Tom Croft, Danny Care, Shane Geraghty, Mathew Tait

New Zealand: Mils Muliaina; Zac Guildford, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Sitiveni Sivivatu; Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan; Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Owen Franks, Brad Thorn, Tom Donnelly, Adam Thomson, Richie McCaw (capt), Kieran Read

Replacements: Aled de Malmanche, John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Jerome Kaino, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Tamati Ellison

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA)

Assistant referees: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Television Match Official: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)

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