Youngs Guns (Go For It)
Autumn might not be the traditional time for sunny optimism, but with piles of dead leaves heaped up around the trees of Twickenham there is an unseasonal spring in the step of England rugby supporters.
Never mind that their opponents on Saturday are the number one team in the world, or that England's record against the All Blacks in the preceding 105 years contains a mere six white-shirted wins, or that this fresh hope seems to spring from a single-point win in Sydney in the summer and a rain-soaked defeat in Paris back in March.
Whereas last autumn there was so little expectation from home fans that a 19-6 defeat in the corresponding fixture was viewed by some as a decent result, this weekend a fresh-faced and - whisper it quietly - dynamic-looking England XV has even stirred talk of a first win over New Zealand in eight years.
It shouldn't make sense. On Saturday there's a good chance it won't. But even within the squad there is a genuine sense of green shoots squeezing through.
"There's a huge amount of enthusiasm and a real buzz, and an excitement about where we are compared to the best teams in the world, and that's down to the win in Sydney," says 21-year-old Ben Youngs, the leader of this precocious pack.
"It's very obvious in the camp. Everyone is very excited and can't wait to see how we fare against the All Blacks."
Scrum-half Youngs, hailed by Austin Healey as a potential world-beater and by Jeremy Guscott as "for his age, the best northern hemisphere scrum-half I have seen in years", was the breakthrough star of that summertime win over Australia.
His darting first-half try set the tone for the tourists' renaissance in the second Test, his ostentatious dive over the line a subconscious symbol of his side's liberation from the shackles of the preceding season.
Youngs dives over for his try in Sydney
"It was a very special moment for me - it helped us kick on and win the game," he recalls. "There was the big dive, but to score for England on your full debut is always going to feel good."
Youngs will be making his first home start for England this weekend. Yet so impressive were his two performances down under and his displays for Leicester in the past 12 months that he looks every inch the answer to England's long search for a consistent first-choice nine.
Since Matt Dawson swapped box-kicks for kitchens and commentary boxes, there has been a virtual parade past the base of the scrum: Peter Richards, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall, Richard Wigglesworth, Danny Care, Harry Ellis and Paul Hodgson have all taken their turn.
What might guarantee Youngs the jersey for a while longer is his startlingly full set of skills - a fast, flat pass that requires no two-step start; pin-point perfect kicking from hand and tee; the vision to put away team-mates close to the breakdown and enough pace and swerve - what Antipodeans call "toe" - to tear holes in the tightest defence.
What we're about to find out is how he handles the pressure of both an expectant Twickenham crowd and a rampaging Richie McCaw.
"What happened in Australia has had an effect on me," he admits. "There's an expectation now, in terms of you can't afford to have bad performances for your club, there has to be a consistency, they're looking for you to score more often, and how has he not scored there...
"I think teams are more aware of you, but I've put the hard work in post-Sydney to enable me to kick on as a player and still be one step ahead of the props defending."
Youngs' well-developed game is testament to the various luminaries who have influenced him over the years, starting with his father Nick - scrum-half himself for Leicester and England in the 1980s, and part of the England team that ground out a 15-9 win over the All Blacks 27 years ago.
"Dad taught me to spin-pass off both hands," says Youngs, who used to practise with his hooker brother Tom - now on loan at Nottingham - in the fields around the family farm in Norfolk. Their father even constructed a makeshift set of posts from irrigation pipes to allow the pair to hone their kicking skills.
As an impressionable teenager, Youngs then modelled himself on New Zealand's flying full-back Christian Cullen - "simply for his attacking play, and the way he could beat players. When you're a kid you just want to run with the ball. To be able to see someone run that fluently and just beat defenders encourages you to play rugby."
From the colts side at North Walsham he was then spotted by England and Tigers legend Dusty Hare and brought into the famed Leicester academy. "If it hadn't been for Dust I wouldn't be there. He got me to the academy, helped me with my goal kicking and kicking in play, and then I had Neil Back and Andy Key when I first turned up, and (current England scrum coach) Graham Rowntree. It was a really good set-up, and you learned very quickly."
Next in line was another great England scrum-half - and victor over New Zealand, 17 years ago - Kyran Bracken, brought in by Leicester last year to keep an eye on their burgeoning number nines.
"Kyran comes in and helps me with my skills, with my passing and kicking. He puts me in good stead. And Matt O'Connor, the Leicester backs coach, has been amazing in helping with my game management and understanding. Kyran really knuckles down with my skills, but Matt's been the genius behind it, behind making me the player I am.
"Cockers (director of rugby Richard Cockerill) and the way we are at Leicester really helps me too. Wwe've got some world-class players, and all of them have their feet on the ground - we're quite sheltered there from the media which helps, and Cockers is very good at keeping me away from too much. If you ever do step out of line, you get slapped."
While Youngs' rise into the international elite has been meteoric (although he became Leicester's youngest-ever league player when he made his debut in 2007, he only made the first-team spot his own after Ellis's injury problems at the start of last season) he has his feet firmly rooted in reality. Two big factors in this are his house-mate - and club and country team-mate - Tom Croft, and his rural East Anglian roots.
"I've lived with Crofty for coming up to two years now," he says. "We have a good time together. And I go back to Norfolk as often as I can. That's my get-out. Everyone needs something away from rugby, and that gets my mind away from things. I've got a lot of cousins and we're all really close, so that helps freshen up my mind."
Youngs relaxes in his native Norfolk
Four other Englishmen will also be making their home starting debuts on Saturday. That, the age of the new breed (Courtney Lawes 21, Chris Ashton and Dan Cole 23, Ben Foden 25) and the wholesale changes from a year ago (only two of the 15 who started against the All Blacks last autumn are in the team this time) lend credence to Martin Johnson's belief that he is bringing through fresh blood at the right time.
Others might disagree. While Youngs' progression is testament to the careful husbandry of the national age-group set-up - he played for England Under-16 and U18s, and was in the U20 team that won a Grand Slam in 2008 - there is an argument that Foden and Lawes, at least, should have been making their full home bows in the corresponding series a year ago.
Contrast the number of caps won by England's new breed with those accrued by Australia's battle-hardened youngsters. David Pocock, Will Genia and Quade Cooper are all 22 but are playing like Test veterans, arguably the best in their positions anywhere in the world; aged 20, James O'Connor has more Wallaby caps under his belt than years.
Come the World Cup in 10 months' time, which side will be in better shape?
For now, the focus will remain on short-term success. "New Zealand have played a game (against Australia in Hong Kong) but they have also had to travel and change time zones," says Martin Johnson. "We have had two weeks' preparation, we just need to go out there and do it now."
Youngs is keenly aware of the magnitude of the task ahead. His opposite number Alby Mathewson might be making his starting debut at scrum-half, but Youngs has already tasted defeat by New Zealand twice in his nascent career - 36-3 in 2008 and 44-28 in 2009, both in the same England U20 team as Lawes.
"The expectation is massive," he says. "They've got world-class players throughout. But I think we're ready for it, coming off the back of what happened in Sydney, to test ourselves against the best in the world.
"We will go out there and try to take it to them. You can't let any opportunities they give you slip away. We're not scared. We will give it a proper go."