ENGLAND v NEW ZEALAND Venue: Twickenham Date: Saturday, 29 November Kick-off: 1430 GMT Coverage: Sky Sports; live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, live text commentary online
This is one reason why I admire New Zealand, whilst supporting England:
New Zealand face an England side under siege since suffering a record loss on home soil to world champions South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday.
The magnitude of the 42-6 defeat has prompted a wave of despair in the English press but the All Blacks, publicly at least, have not bought into the doom and gloom enveloping Martin Johnson's new era.
After dispatching Scotland, Ireland and Wales without conceding a try - nor a point in the second half of each Test - All Blacks management and staff are wary of underestimating last year's World Cup runners-up.
Solely from the perspective of my roots, I have no reason to say anything good about the New Zealand team. Whether it be my English father and Irish mother, whether it be my long time in Australia, NZ does not come into that at all, except as the eternal adversary.
However, there is a spirit in the rugby world which is not always present in the wider world - respect. Respect for a foe who is both noble and organized. NZ were once accused of being brash, uncultured, arrogant in victory and moaning in defeat ... or words to that effect. Wayne Shelford and the team were up in arms about that and held a press conference. He said that the one thing which had stung them was the accusation of arrogance.
"New Zealanders are far too self-effacing for that."
The All Blacks are very wary of a wounded lion, whilst quietly confident of their own ability. Too many teams have taken England for granted, only to end up with egg on their face. It is to ignore history to take your eyes off the ball when England are in there. Yes, they can put up woeful performances and leave the field with downcast eyes. Yes, they go through periods of infighting.
Then comes a challenge, like knocking Australia off its perch and the result is one of the greatest world cup finals ever. A Russian friend of mine had it right - whenever someone spoke disparagingly of England [and you can be sure I did not, as my refusal to do so now with Russia testifies] he would point out the empire they were able to create and even the wariness of Hitler in WW2.
The All Blacks are a great team with an impeccable pedigree. This particular team are not as technically excellent and they came here with question marks over them but the spirit of the All Blacks has so far shone through.
In the rugby world, we can admire that.
We can admire a team who gives no quarter, who takes the rules to the very edge and who shows indominatable spirit. It doesn't mean we won't go out there to knock them off, to grind them into the mud. We do. They do. It's just that, afterwards, you know you have been in a real battle with a dangerous but noble foe.
I've been there myself, in a lesser arena, playing a maori team on a wet, cold day, on a pitch under two inches of water, winded and face down in the mud after being hammered in an unaccustomed role as fly half. After the game, over a drink, the maori who had hit me [and who was billeted with me] said: "You played well. Hard to catch."
"Er ... thanks," I replied, still nursing my sensitive stomach.
That's my experience of the New Zealanders. They'll watch out for the Dunkirk spirit, the Battle of Britain grit. Should be a good game.