As has been the case for every Rugby World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987, New Zealand go into this edition as favourites to lift the Webb Ellis trophy. Are they worthy of that label? It’d take a brave man to argue no.
In typically-merciless All Black fashion, Steve Hansen’s men ripped Tonga to shreds in their final warm-up match before kick-off in Japan, sending a message to their doubters. A recent humbling at the hands of Australia had some questioning the Kiwis’ mindset and credentials ahead of the World Cup; they have swiftly set the record straight.
Ninety-two points were racked up against the Pacific Islanders in a devastating display of clinical finishing, tireless running, and team cohesion. A similar performance a few weeks prior saw New Zealand get revenge on the Wallabies at the first time of asking. If nothing else, the defeat to the Australians got Hansen’s squad refocused and fired up.
That’s ominous for every other nation flying out to east Asia, though not nearly as ominous as the players at the All Blacks’ disposal. No other frontrow on the planet has the ball-playing skills of Dane Coles, Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala, nor the speed across the turf. Having such fleet-footed forwards is essential to the high-octane brand of rugby Hansen demands from his side.
Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, and Sam Whitelock are a fearsome trio to have in the engine room. Both the Chiefs and Crusaders locks have reached the pinnacle of the sport; Retallick won World Player of the Year in 2014, whilst Whitelock has always been a reasonable shout for the greatest second-row around, except when his partner earned the aforementioned accolade, of course. So yes, New Zealand are well-stocked up front.
It just gets more and more terrifying as you continue to scroll through the squad. When Richie McCaw hung up his boots following his country’s triumph in 2015, few would have suggested that Kieran Read – regardless of his immense talents – could fill the void of such an inspirational leader. No one is saying the number eight has been quite at the same level as his predecessor, but he’s hardly struggled under the weight of the captaincy. Game-changing performances are still his forte and you can guarantee he will make the right decision with a penalty 99 times out of 100.
Add the blistering Ardie Savea – who has made his brother a distant memory – and pilfer-king Sam Cane next to Read, and you have arguably the finest backrow at the 2019 World Cup. David Pocock, Michael Hooper, and Isi Naisarani are marvellous, with the same true of Billy Vunipola, Mark Wilson, and Tom Curry. However, the latter trio fall well short in terms of experience – New Zealand’s backrow has a combined 224 caps.
Matches are won and lost in the backrow battle and the All Blacks are the Roman Legion of modern-day rugby. But, what does that mean? It means a monumental collapse is a distinct possibility, just as it was in 2007… and 2003… and 1999… and so on. You should never rule out the chances of a Kiwi blowout, though you should also never bet against them at a World Cup. Confusing, right?
How can we tell if this tournament will be like the last two or the five that came before it? I’ll put my neck on the line and say it will be more like the latter, simply because there are more teams who appear genuinely capable of mounting a challenge for glory in Tokyo, meaning there are far more hurdles for Hansen’s recruits to trip over. Past tournaments tell us the Kiwis are susceptible to failure when they are pushed to the limits and under incredible pressure.
Additionally, a golden generation of New Zealander has moved on since 2015; McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith, a young and motivated Julian Savea, Jerome Kaino… that’s some stellar personnel to lose in the space of one World Cup cycle, even if the current crop are still brilliant.
A backline containing lightning scrumhalf Aaron Smith (and his equally magnificent deputy TJ Perenara), the superlative Beauden Barrett, try-fiend Rieko Ioane, and Mr Reliable Ben Smith is a force to be reckoned with – but is this a vintage All Blacks squad?
You certainly can’t say complacency will be their downfall, with many of these players never having earned a world champions’ medal, but they are also not the unstoppable powerhouse that blitzed its way to the Webb Ellis trophy four years ago.
I may never live this down, but here goes nothing. This New Zealand side will not be making it a hat-trick of consecutive crowns for their nation. Their throne will be stolen by one of Wales, Ireland, England, or South Africa. Famous last words, eh?
By Ed Alexander
Here is New Zealand’s likely route in the World Cup: