By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - The rugby World Cup might be two years away but England's clash against New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday is a significant waymarker for both sides' psychological approach to the 2015 tournament.
New Zealand ended a 24-year wait for a second World Cup triumph when they emerged victorious on home soil in 2011 and, under the new management of Steve Hansen, they have continued to dominate global rugby.
The only blot on the landscape since their triumph in Auckland is last year's 38-21 thrashing by England and they will be desperate to avenge that record defeat on Saturday as they seek to complete 2013 with 13 wins from as many matches.
That win was also of huge importance for Stuart Lancaster's England, who were at a low ebb having lost previous home games to Australia and South Africa but were then able to go away and plan for the Six Nations full of confidence that, on their day, they were a match for anyone.
The All Blacks fear nobody in the game, least of all anyone from Europe, but another defeat on Saturday would really plant a seed of doubt in terms of the World Cup, with the final at Twickenham in 2015.
Significant as it may be, Saturday's match is only the first of five between the two teams over the next 13 months as England tour New Zealand in June before the All Blacks return to Twickenham next November.
New Zealand are likely to have much the better of those games and could quite easily win them all.
However, if England can get to them, and stop them playing the way they want to play while improving their own game all the time, the psychological advantage might just be theirs should they meet again for the ultimate prize in 2015.
Last year's result has been dismissed in some quarters because of a perceived tiredness among the tourists, exacerbated by illness in the camp, but Hansen was having none of it when he named his team on Thursday.
"We were completely outplayed by them last year but this is an opportunity for us to see if we have improved our game to the point where we can be competitive," he said.
Former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick thinks they have, so much so that he considers the current side to be the best ever.
"I think the class of 2013 is better than 2012 and 2011. They are becoming a pretty complete team," said the hooker, whose 1995-96 team, the first to win a series in South Africa, is often held up as the best in New Zealand history.
However, Fitzpatrick also recognised that facing England is an altogether different challenge than the fast-flowing fare on show in the Rugby Championship.
We got beaten up last year," he said. "The English have the ability to slow down our game and stop us playing."
While that trait is not exactly a rugby marketing man's dream, wins over New Zealand most certainly are.
England have beaten them only seven times in 35 meetings and last December's victory was their first in 10 attempts.
They have been them twice in a row only once, when they triumphed at Twickenham in November 2002 before winning in Wellington in June 2003.
"The atmosphere was amazing for this game last year, the crowd made a real difference and I'm sure they can help inspire us again on Saturday," Lancaster said after naming his team on Thursday.
Still without five injured British and Irish Lions, the only change from the team who beat Argentina 31-12 last week is the return of tighthead prop Dan Cole for David Wilson.
Hooker Dylan Hartley, man of the match in the Pumas victory, where England started like a train but fell away badly in the second half, will win his 50th cap.
He will, however, remain somewhat in the background when it comes to landmark celebrations as flyhalf Dan Carter will become the fifth New Zealander to play 100 tests.
Team: 15-Mike Brown, 14-Chris Ashton, 13-Joel Tomkins, 12-Billy Twelvetrees, 11-Ben Foden, 10-Owen Farrell, 9-Lee Dickson, 8-Billy Vunipola, 7-Chris Robshaw (captain), 6-Tom Wood, 5-Courtney Lawes, 4-Joe Launchbury, 3-Dan Cole, 2-Dylan Hartley, 1-Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16-Tom Youngs, 17-Matt Mullan, 18-David Wilson, 19-Geoff Parling, 20-Ben Morgan, 21-Ben Youngs, 22-Toby Flood, 23-Alex Goode.