IN SEARCH OF HISTORY
Here we go again... New Zealand hope they have everything they need to successfully defend their title.
The All Blacks have set themselves the goal of becoming the most dominant side in history and to do that, they have to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cups. GREGOR PAUL reports.
THEY ARRIVE IN ENGLAND AS..?
Defending champions and slight favourites. They have been number one in the world since late 2009 and in 42 tests played after being crowned champions in 2011, they only lost twice. Incredible.
They have an incredible line-up of personnel; can do the basics superbly; are composed under pressure; have a smart and experienced coaching team; a strong team culture that the players lead and are a content and driven group.
WHAT TYPE OF FOOTBALL WILL THEY PLAY?
Under coach Steve Hansen, the All Blacks have built what they call a triple threat game – in that they can run, pass and kick. Whatever the weather, the ground conditions or the opposition, the All Blacks believe they have the right tools in their bag to play the appropriate style. It’s all about finding space and they don’t care which method they employ to do that. Happiest when they are passing and running, the All Blacks will play kick and chase if that’s what they feel they need to do to win.
ARE THEY SUITABLY MOTIVATED?
It was early in 2014 that the senior leaders within the All Blacks gathered to set themselves the goal of becoming the most dominant side in history. “We know we need to have a lofty aspiration,” said Hansen. “It is to try to be the most dominant side in the history of the game. That’s not something we believe we are – it’s something we are striving for. What does that [ being the most dominant team in history] look like? There are some obvious outcomes. No one has won more than 17 tests in a row; no one has gone undefeated two years in a row; no one has won back-to-back World Cups. They are obvious goals.”
Also, for the likes of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith the World Cup will be, or almost certainly will be, their last business in test football.
DO THEY HAVE ENOUGH PERSONNEL DEPTH?
They have, most positions covered and covered again. Certainly loose forward is not a problem when the likes of Matt Todd, Victor Vito and Steven Luatua can’t make the cut. Midfield is another area of incredible strength with a player as good as Ryan Crotty not likely to be on the plane to England. First-five, which was nearly their undoing in 2011 when they got down to their fourth choice, is, even without Aaron Cruden, a position in which they have ample choice. The only areas of concern is hooker. 36-year-old veteran Keven Mealamu is injury prone and hasn’t shown much form. As for their third choice, Nathan Harris, he is basically a rookie who is well short of football having missed Super Rugby through injury.
CAN THEY COPE WITH THE PRESSURE?
The All Blacks’ biggest failing at previous tournaments was their mental strength – or lack of. Teams that got off the defensive line and squeezed them, found that like a jam doughnut, the filling would ooze out of the All Blacks. They had a psychological faultline running through the core of the team in that decision making became compromised the instant opponents got the upper hand in a knock-out game. The area where they have changed the most since 2011 is their mental intensity and clarity. They have become, arguably, one of the best sides in history at absorbing pressure; at staying calm, task focused and effective in the most intense situations.
WHERE ARE THEIR WEAKNESSES?
It’s difficult to pinpoint any obvious weakness but there is concern about the number of older athletes. In 1991 the All Blacks went to the UK to defend their world title with many players who had been involved in 1987. As it turned out, a few too many were well past their best. Could it be that the likes of Tony Woodcock, Mealamu, McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane are going to be exposed as too slow at the World Cup? That’s the big hope for the rest of the world...but it may well be forlorn.
WHAT ARE THEIR KEY STRENGTHS?
They have a robust and flexible gameplan; a collection of brilliant players which includes, ball winners; space creators and deadly finishers. Their basic skills are extraordinarily good; they have a strong and experienced coach who has been at three previous World Cups and they have self-belief and confidence. They are also likely to have more than 1000 caps in their starting XV and yet their average age will be about 28 – younger than they were in 2011.
WHAT POTENTIAL PROBLEMS COULD THEY INCUR?
How will the selectors handle the tricky issue of Nonu and Williams competing for the same jersey? They will both be desperate to play and both will be able to make compelling cases to start. But how will they accept disappointment if it comes?
Perhaps, though, the bigger problem is the lack of competition in the pool rounds. After the All Blacks play Argentina in their opening game, they face Namibia, Georgia and Tonga. Faced with a similarly weak schedule in 2007, the All Blacks failed to make a good transition from the pass and giggle of the pool rounds to the deadly serious knock-out phase.
DO THEY HAVE A STRONG ENOUGH LEADERSHIP TEAM?
The All Blacks may never have had a leadership group quite like this one. At the helm is McCaw– the most experienced captain world rugby has known. His influence on those around him is phenomenal. He’s unflappable. He is immune to pressure and his team responds to his lead: more than that, his players will do anything for him.
But he’s not a lone voice by any means. Kieran Read is a brilliant, emerging captain. Conrad Smith and Carter are supremely good at analysing opponents on the hoof and adapting their thinking. And off the field, the All Blacks have a clear communicator in Hansen – a coach in whom the team trusts and believes.
ONE MORE: Tony Woodcock
scored the All Blacks’ only try in
the last final.
IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE: The All Blacks have depth everywhere.