"Ben Smith, Israel Dagg" - England fullback George Furbank reveals All Blacks 'Idols' with New Zealand at 'top of the list' for opponents - Ruck

“Ben Smith, Israel Dagg” – England fullback George Furbank reveals All Blacks ‘Idols’ with New Zealand at ‘top of the list’ for opponents

The stakes don’t get much higher for George Furbank than taking on the All Blacks in their own back yard. The England fullback grew up watching New Zealand dominate the Test match landscape as back-to-back world champions, and now the Northampton Saints man hopes to lead England to a rarely achieved victory, over the side whom he once idolised.

A lifelong rugby lover, Furbank’s deepest following of the All Blacks came during the 2000s and 2010s, as Steve Hansen took New Zealand to the summit. Former New Zealand captain Richie McCaw lifted the Web Ellis Trophy at the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups, with this unbeatable era of the All Blacks fondly remembered by fans across the globe.

George Furbank of England inspect the pitch ahead of the Guinness Six Nations Match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on March 9th 2024. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

Furbank was one such fan, and expressed how he was inspired by watching the likes of former All Black Ben Smith and Israel Dagg run rings around their opponents from fullback. Speaking at the England team hotel in the centre of Auckland, Furbank shone a light upon his past admirations of such great players, and how they helped mould him into the talented playmaker that England fans support today.

“I could probably name you most of the All Blacks squads from that era. There are a lot of players there I look up to. Ben Smith, Israel Dagg is another one I grew up watching. He was a massive inspiration to me. A lot of my rugby idols come from New Zealand, as well as England.

“The ability to play to space and see space. The All Blacks are one of the best teams in the world at doing that. They are pretty happy to go from anywhere on the pitch. If they see an opportunity they back themselves, they do it.

“I am lucky enough to play for a club that has implemented a similar sort of thing. Growing up watching those guys do it and to be at a club that do that sort of thing as well, I have taken a lot of learnings from that.”

Furbank is eager to impress Steve Borthwick for the upcoming Test matches, and to be selected for a pair of fixtures which he puts at the ‘top of the list’. Their is a special aura around the All Blacks that harkens back to their decades of rugby dominance, with the magical mystique of the black jersey embraced by England, as this weekend’s opposition.

After the Northampton back expressed his admiration of the All Black icons of yesterday, he pivoted to then praise the top talents that are continuing on New Zealand’s legacy. One such linchpin is Beauden Barrett, with the versatile back amongst the top threats for the All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson to unleash this Saturday.

“If I’m playing at the weekend this is definitely going to be top of the list. Obviously I’m an England supporter, but I grew up watching the All Blacks loads and admiring those guys. If I get the opportunity to play at the weekend, a guy like Beauden Barrett is someone I’ve looked up to since I was young, watched him and admired him. It will be an amazing experience and definitely one I won’t forget if I’m involved.

“Playing at Forsyth Barr and at Eden Park will be two pretty special occasions. I know how much rugby means to the Kiwis so I know it’s going to be a decent atmosphere.”

An unmistakeable aspect of taking on the All Blacks, comes in the form of their iconic pre-match haka. The undisputed embodiment of the spirit of New Zealand rugby, England have famously had prior controversy when facing the ceremonial dance. Whilst under the leadership of Eddie Jones at the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-finals, England responded to the haka by forming a defiant ‘V’ formation, with prop Joe Marler fined for stepping over the half-way line.

Furbank discussed how England do not have any immediate plans to ‘respond’ to the haka as of yet, with the Northampton fullback expecting to be enthralled with the ‘Kapa o Pango’ once he comes face to face with it in Dunedin.

“We’ve not spoken about anything yet so I can’t imagine there’ll be too much chat around it. That is a massive part I’d be quite excited for. It would be a dream for me to face that, but there’s not be any chat this week about doing anything in particular.”

As Furbank alluded to, he gets to experience the fast flowing attacking style of New Zealand every week in the East Midlands, as Northampton Saints play with a similarly expansive style of rugby. A man who can be in part accredited to this approach, is New Zealander Chris Boyd, who was the head coach of Northampton from 2018 to 2022.

George Furbank of Northampton Saints celebrates after winning during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final Match between Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby at Twickenham Stadium on 8 June 2024. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

Furbank relished in his time under the Wellington man, with the attitude of the squad carrying the high-octane approach over to the Phil Dowson era. Such offensive orientations have certainly reaped dividends, as Northampton claimed their first Premiership title for a decade, just last month.

“It was about playing to space. You never mentioned the word risk with him (Chris Boyd), it was always a decision. If you were making the right decision, whether that was on your try-line or the opposition try-line, he was going to back you to do that. It is about seeing that decision in the first place and then backing yourself to execute that.

Northampton Saints director of rugby, Chris Boyd during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints at Sandy Park on February 23rd 2020, Exeter, Devon. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“He gave you a sense of freedom to go and play. Some coaches make you worried about making mistakes. This was a new philosophy and it helped the young guys coming through. There wasn’t a fear of making mistakes as long as you were making the right decisions.”

“Firstly he gave me an opportunity to play which was huge. He gave all us young guys the confidence to go and do what we do. He gave us the confidence to show why we were selected or signed our first contract coming out of school. And he was a very good coach. I put a lot down to Sam Vesty who developed out skills to allow us to play like Chris (Boyd) wanted to.”  

George Furbank of Northampton Saints during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Northampton Saints and Gloucester Rugby at Franklins Gardens Stadium on11 May. Photo: Richard Bierton/PPAUK

Along with the likes of Harlequins and Bristol Bears as the Premiership’s resident entertainers, Furbank loves the Northampton style of free-flowing attack. However, the flying fullback recognises how you can’t carry such an ‘out-scoring’ approach to the Test match stage, when there are no easy tries and every point is valuable, when taking on opposition like New Zealand.

“You come to international rugby and you probably have to be a bit more risk averse. You make errors at international level and they are often punished, at club level you can probably make a couple before one is punished, So you have to be a bit more wary, a bit more pragmatic coming out of your own half. There is definite sense of seeing opportunities and backing ourselves to go and take those. We have a very exciting young back line to want to go and do that.”

Whilst the pressure is on for England to build upon their Summer series win against Japan, there is no denying the scorching Scoville units that Scott Robertson is currently experiencing. The newly appointed All Blacks head coach is set to command his side for the first time this Saturday, with the pressure of a nation expecting the win against England.

The head coach known as ‘Razor’ has an excellent track record within Super Rugby, yet has never before proven his capabilities as a senior Test match coach. With seven Super Rugby titles to his name during his time at the Crusaders, Robertson was appropriately recognised by Furbank as a ‘winning coach’. However, the England fullback kept the door ajar for an upset on home soil, as the element of surprise can sometimes back-fire on the side who are yet to show their hand.

“He’s a winning coach. And if you look at all the trophies he’s won was Crusaders. He knows how to get a team to win. We’ve got a few things that we expect New Zealand to bring. They’ve got a very good offloading game. They’re very good on the front foot and they’re good in big games as well. 

“So especially at home so we know there’s a big challenge coming this weekend. We’ve obviously got the got a few things under our belt to try and counteract that and, and to put our game on the field, which we’re excited to do, and we’re just excited for the challenge ahead.”

“I imagine he would have implemented what he wanted to do with that side. Obviously, he’s not had long with that team. But I mean, they’re an incredible group of rugby players and a lot of them would have worked with him before so would probably know what to expect with him. I imagine he’s implemented what he what he wants to do, and they’re gonna probably be doing the best they can put on the field on Saturday.”

Ardie Savea of New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade De France, Paris, France on 28 October 2023 (Photo: Micah Crook/PPAUK)

For the rugby fans who predominantly follow the Northern Hemisphere, New Zealand have five ‘franchise’ clubs who compete in the Super Rugby Pacific competition. The Blues, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Chiefs showcase the top New Zealand based talent in the annual tournament, with the Auckland Blues claiming the 2024 Super Rugby title last month.

The Blues and Chiefs met in the recent final, which featured an abundance of All Blacks that have all since been training for the upcoming Tests against England. The likes of Chiefs playmaker Damian McKenzie and Blues flyer Caleb Clarke will be pushing for selection, which has provided plenty of video content for the England camp to analyse. Furbank explained how the England coaches have been highlighting clips from recent Super Rugby matches, to get an understanding of the unexpected All Blacks game plan.

“We know the coaches they have got in their team now, and we can watch bits of Super Rugby and try to take a little bit of a guess. But like you said, we don’t know exactly what’s coming. So, it’s about prepping for the unexpected. And our coaches are very good at doing that for us.

“And ultimately, a lot of it is on us as well, about us having a really clear game plan going into it, which we feel like we’ve got already having last week’s training under our belt. So now it’s about training throughout this week, and so we’re in the best position to go on Saturday.”

“There’s bits that we’ve got sent, player profiles from coaches on some of their players. So it’ll be specific to position, so we’ll be looking at likes of Beauden Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea. All those back three guys from my position, and trying to work out the strengths and weaknesses in their game, to go and stop them doing what they do, and try to take advantage from what we can do as well.”