IN SEARCH OF HIS­TORY

NZ Rugby World Tournament Guide - - CON­TENTS -

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.

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