Many pundits have talked about the 2007 Rugby World Cup as being a one horse race for 3 and a half years, such has been the dominance of the All Blacks side since the 2003 tournament.
Since Graham Henry took over the reins as coach, he has implemented a plan that has seen him regularly rotate players in his squad, develop the most powerful forward unit in the world, and turn his men into fitter, leaner and stronger men than anyone else in the game.
The upshot is that New Zealand now have two teams that can compete with any other nation. On their Grand Slam tour of Europe, Henry would make as many as 15 changes from one week to the next and they’d still win. Their first choice line-up is already head and shoulders above the rest, and they have the strength in depth required for the testing schedule of a World Cup.
Nevertheless, to lift the spirits of all the other rugby nations, here are 5 reasons why New Zealand’s 20-year wait for a another World Cup title may go on.
1. Pressure from the New Zealand public
If the All Blacks do not win in France this year, there will be uproar at home. Graham Henry will suffer the same fate as John Mitchell in 2003, and there will be sweeping changes in the team. Rugby to the New Zealand public means as much as football does to the English. When England gets knocked out of the football (soccer) World Cup, the nation is sent into depression, and there is a downturn in the economy – for New Zealand it is worse, given that England’s football team are never really expected to win anything! That pressure could play on their minds in tight games in the latter stages.
2. 20 years is a long wait
Everyone knows that despite coming close on a number of occasions, New Zealand has not won the tournament since the inaugural event in 1987. Every four years, the All Blacks start among the favourites, but disappointing defeats have left them with the unenviable title of ‘The best team in the world between World Cups’. This stigma will add to the significant pressure from supporters and may contribute to their demise.
3. Easy group
Of all the top seeds, New Zealand has the easiest group. Scotland and Italy will be battling it out for second place, but neither will offer stern opposition for the All Blacks, and they will go through to the knockout stages untested. In the quarter-finals, there is a realistic chance they will meet Argentina (the Pumas need to beat Ireland to go through as runners up to France – a feat they achieved twice this summer), and even that game should not prove too much trouble. So New Zealand may cruise through to the semis, where they could face Australia, battle-hardened after a more strenuous route and determined to cause an upset against their local rivals like they did in 2003. New Zealand will need to beware.
4. Reuben Thorne
Why has Thorne been named in the All Blacks squad over the more dynamic and versatile Troy Flavell? Is Graham Henry cracking up already? Thorne will not be selected in the first-choice team, nor will he make any impact from the substitutes bench and so his selection is mystifying. Henry will effectively have 29 players to choose from, and if the Kiwis have to rely on Thorne in a World Cup final, they could be exposed.
5. Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies
South Africa’s back row is on a par with – possibly even better than – New Zealand’s trio. If the Springbok loose forwards get the better of their Kiwi counterparts, they could starve the dangerous All Black backline of possession and kill their running rugby gameplan. Burger and Smith are brutally physical and will force turnover ball, while Spies has the pace and power to be a threat in attack. If the final is a contest between these two sides, the Springboks manage to keep all their players on the field and out of the sin bin, and Reuben Thorne lines up for the All Blacks, the Springboks could sneak a result and lift the trophy.
Should all these factors combine, the All Blacks’ could fail once again in their World Cup quest. However, New Zealand’s performance against Australia to secure the Bledisloe Cup and the Tri-Nations allayed fears that they were beginning to decline – they remain overwhelming favourites to lift the Web Ellis Cup, and rightly so, but let us all take solace that there may be a glimmer of hope for the other teams.
By James Hutchison