No one had won two Rugby World Cups in a row until the All Blacks did it at the last tournament. Now, Kieran Read and his side are eyeing off an unprecedented third straight triumph in 2019.
With talent all over the park and lots of Cup-winning experience, New Zealand head to Japan as favourites, but not as short-priced as they were in 2015. Still, it will take a mighty effort from one of the other contenders to stop the men in black.
New Zealand Rugby World Cup squad
Kieran Read (c), Scott Barrett, Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Shannon Frizell, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Joe Moody, Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea, Angus Ta’avao, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Sam Whitelock
Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Richie Mo’unga, TJ Perenara, Sevu Reece, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Brad Weber, Sonny Bill Williams
Steve Hansen named an imposing 31-man squad to defend their title. Captain Read is one of three players at his third World Cup, alongside Sam Whitelock and Sonny Bill Williams, while nine are at their second tournament. That means New Zealand’s squad have 15 winners medals between them. Only one other player in Japan – South Africa’s Frans Steyn – has experienced winning it all.
There were some notable omissions for the All Blacks. Ngani Laumape was overlooked in the midfield, while there was no room for experienced prop Owen Franks. Liam Squire wasn’t considered for selection due to injury, and Luke Jacobson was a late scratching after experiencing delayed onset concussion symptoms last week. He was replaced by Shannon Frizell.
Brodie Retallick has been taken to the tournament despite dislocating his shoulder in a Rugby Championship match against South Africa. He’ll miss the pool stage, but should be fit for the knockout matches.
How long do you have?
Over the past
four eight twelve years, the All Blacks have been the most dominant side in world rugby. Since the end of the 2007 World Cup, they’ve played 156 Tests. 134 ended in victory.
Watching this team win ad nauseam has become so accepted and, indeed, expected, that it’s probably desensitised us to what a brilliant historical anomaly they are. Even if we just look at their results this World Cup cycle, they’ve won 83 per cent of their Tests.
It’s lower than the combined mark for the past three, which is close to 86 per cent, but it’s still remarkable. It’s also better than that of the side which went into the 2011 tournament, which had nine losses in the preceding four years.
On the field itself, the All Blacks are the most complete team we’ll see in Japan. They’re impressive at the breakdown, stingy in defence and lethal in attack. They’re ruthless in closing out Tests, thanks to both their experience and depth of talent – there are plenty of Kiwi reserves who’d walk into the starting XVs of most other Test sides.
It’s their attack which is most imposing. Since the start of 2018, Hansen’s men have averaged almost 39 points per game, and their 15-9 loss to Dublin at the Aviva last year was the only match in which they scored under ten points.
That’s no great surprise when you consider the wealth of options at their disposal. Having to fit Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett into the same side would be a luxury for any other nation. For the All Blacks, it’s been a headache – although one that looks to be over considering how effective the two were against the Wallabies in Bledisloe 2.
It was always going to take some time for Mo’unga and Barrett to gel, but the Eden Park performance against Australia came in just their third Test starting together. The thought of them combining after an entire World Cup playing together is not a pleasant one for their opponents in Japan.
The injury gremlin has reared its head at just the wrong time for the All Blacks. Liam Squire almost certainly would have been in the squad had he been fit all year, while Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Scott Barrett and Mo’unga all spent varying amounts of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup on the sideline.
It’s the injury to Brodie Retallick which is the most significant blow, and by some margin. When fit, he’s not just the best lock in the world, he’s the best player. So integral to the side’s success in 2015, Hansen will be desperately hoping the big second-rower is able to get back out on the park in Japan.
While New Zealand’s form this cycle has been imposing, their more recent results have left something to be desired, certainly by their lofty standards. Three of their six losses since the 2015 tournament have come since last September – including conceding a record 47 points to Australia last month in a 21-point defeat – and there’s also been a draw with South Africa in that time.
Every side to have won the World Cup in the professional era has had a drop-off in the year of the tournament. The All Blacks themselves had a remarkably similar Bledisloe Cup campaign in 2015, when defeat to the Wallabies in Australia was followed by a commanding win back on home soil. But the losses and draw have gone some way to dampening the sense of invincibility around the side.
The scrum is one area teams will look to target New Zealand, particularly the Springboks and England. It was suspect in the loss to the Wallabies, although admittedly rebounded well the following week.
The lineout, too, has been iffy with Dane Coles at hooker (and Retallick injured) but Codie Taylor has been more reliable and may get the nod over his more experienced colleague.
The All Blacks are hardly shy of influential players. Barrett, Mo’unga, Read, Aaron Smith and Sam Cane could all quite easily be selected here. But it’s hard to overlook Sam Whitelock.
A veteran of New Zealand’s last two campaigns, the second-rower has won every match he’s appeared in at the World Cup, a remarkable record for someone who’s played 14 tournament games.
His experience will therefore be invaluable. This is a man whose trophy cabinet is immense – there’s the two aforementioned World Cups, the last three Super Rugby titles which he’s captained the Crusaders to, plus oodles of Rugby Championships and Bledisloe Cups.
The All Blacks have been vulnerable – at least as vulnerable as the All Blacks ever get – over the past year, and there will be times in Japan when they’re genuinely tested. It might be against the Springboks in the first pool stage game, it might not be until the final, but whenever it is, having Whitelock stand up will make navigating any tricky periods easier.
With his locking partner Retallick out for the first half of this tournament, the 30-year-old will have a considerable amount of slack to pick up, particularly around the lineout. Not that that will be much of a burden for him. There are very few aspects of second-row play in which Whitelock isn’t world-class.
It might be a little lazy to tip the All Blacks to win another World Cup. There’s good reason to do so though; this is the best rugby team in the world, despite what the world rankings say.
There’s far more genuine competition for the title this year, certainly more than what was the case in 2015. England look a genuine threat and only lost to Hansen’s men by a single point last year. The Springboks have split their last three games against New Zealand in both the results and margin. Ireland and Australia each defeated the All Blacks in the past 12 months, and Wales are coming off a dominant Six Nations grand slam.
Some would quite convincingly argue that, after two tournament wins on the trot, the All Blacks’ luck is bound to run out this time around. They can’t go on winning World Cup games forever, right?
That’s certainly the case, but right now they’d go into a match against any other Test side as favourites. And that is enough for us to back them in once again.
Prediction: World champions