New Zealand primed to paint Twickenham black
Martin Johnson said he felt like he'd aged 20 years watching his England side torturously beat Argentina.
If the 39-year-old is already mentally on the verge of collecting his free bus pass, then by the time it gets dark at Twickenham on Saturday they could be metaphorically nailing down his coffin.
"The All Blacks are consistent in performance," the beetle-browed manager noted as he contemplated this week's visitors to south west London. "If we make the same mistakes, we'll be in big trouble."
He was certainly right on the first count (we'll come to the second later.) New Zealand may not have won a World Cup since 1987 and that will remain a treasured taunt for opposition fans and source of pain for Kiwis until a second one arrives, but they could never be labelled an up-and-down team.
Consider this. Since England won the 2003 World Cup, they have played 68 Tests and won 31 of them, a miserable success rate of 46% for a country with designs on global domination.
In the same period, New Zealand - all under the stewardship of Graham Henry - have played 75 Tests and won 63, a phenomenal success ratio of 84%.
Which would you rather as a fan? A glorious high once every four years, with sporadically uplifting victories amid the general mediocrity meantime? Or a shattering low followed by a conveyor belt of triumphs and titles?
Dan Carter is on the brink of becoming the All Blacks top all-time points scorer
And yet this has been a poor year by recent All Black standards. They have lost four Test matches - one to France, three to South Africa - and any further setbacks could cause senior officials in the New Zealand Rugby Union to wonder if they were right to give Henry a second crack at ending their World Cup famine.
In theory the gnarled old coach should be wary of a visit to Twickenham, where England have upset the New Zealand applecart on several occasions (1983, 1993, 2002) over the last quarter of a century or so.
Yet despite his protestations, you can't help feeling that this Saturday's set-to is more a chance for the All Blacks to fine-tune some areas of their game before next week's hazardous looking Test in Marseille, than a serious examination of their pedigree.
Henry, of course, is having none of that. England, he maintains, remain a dangerous proposition, even more so after being pilloried for a turgid performance in victory against Argentina.
"I seem to remember they were booed at the World Cup in 2007 and finished up in the final," he remarked. "They will be highly motivated. For a big game like this they will be on the edge of the edge. We have got no false illusions as to where England are at. We know they will play well. They have selected players with a physical approach and we expect a big Test."
Yet even if England make it a closer contest than most expect - and Henry is aware the rain forecast for Saturday may mitigate against a free-flowing encounter - he still holds most of the cards.
He has Dan Carter for a start. At some point on Saturday - the first time he makes his presence felt on the scoreboard - the celebrated fly-half will overtake Andrew Mehrtens' All Blacks points-scoring record of 957.
Carter likes playing against England, despite his first encounter against them coming as a replacement in that memorable 15-13 win for Johnson's World Cup winners-elect in Wellington back in June 2003.
The 27-year-old has started all seven Tests the countries have played - and New Zealand have won every one - since that filthy night, amassing 137 points at an average of nearly 20 a game.
Alongside him the backline has a settled look. The marvellous full-back Mils Muliaina - scorer of two tries in their 32-6 win at Twickenham last year - will play his 81st test to join Justin Marshall as the second most capped All Black on Saturday, while the ferocious Ma'a Nonu and artful Conrad Smith are a maturing, balanced centre combination.
Wing Sitiveni Sivivatu "does things most players can't do" according to assistant coach Steve Hansen, now in charge of attack, rather than the pack. But in the absence of Sivivatu's injured cousin Joe Rokocoko, the All Blacks have shown no hesitation in giving 20-year-old wing Zac Guildford only his second Test start at Twickenham, after a highly promising debut against Wales a fortnight ago.
"He is very good under the high ball, can pop up anywhere in the backline from phase play, he's got a lot of pace and scores tries," Hansen offered by way of explanation.
In contrast to England's safety-first approach to selection, the All Blacks are also pitching tight-head prop Owen Franks, 21, into the fray alongside two of their core forwards, Tony Woodcock and Andrew Hore, and giving lock Tom Donnelly only his fifth cap in tandem with another, Brad Thorn.
The back row also has an interesting blend with the industrious Adam Thompson joining the improving Kieran Read and the imperious Richie McCaw.
Graham Henry has kept faith with Hawkes Bay winger Zac Guildford
New Zealand may have issues to resolve in a few positions over the next two years - scrum-half, number eight, lock and tight-head are all still up for grabs - but they are using this transitional year, the midway point between World Cups, to assess the contenders and add depth to their squad.
When, as in South Africa, there is pressure to win every Test regardless of circumstances, that is not always easy, but assistant coach Wayne Smith sees ominous parallels.
"It reminds me a bit of 2004," Smith said recently. "We had to re-establish ourselves after a poor Tri-Nations and we did that and built up a really good team in 2005 and 2006." [They lost just three out of 39 Tests before the 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in Cardiff - their only loss in 24 Tests on European soil since England last beat them at Twickenham in 2002.] "We are really happy with the development and character of the team," Smith added.
Not completely happy, mind, and this is where Johnson's fear of the consequences of further England ineptitude on Saturday comes in.
The bad news for those of a red rose persuasion is the All Blacks arrive at Twickenham in frustrated mood themselves.
They may have extended their record of not conceding a try in Europe to six Tests over the last fortnight against Wales and Italy, but only scoring one themselves in each game clearly rankles.
"We haven't been totally happy with the way we have gone and we want to make sure we put a performance together," warned captain McCaw. "We have played good in parts but there is room to improve yet. It would be good to nail those opportunities. We feel we are not far off."
If they hit anything approaching top form at Twickenham, that will be way too near for Johnson.