All Blacks Still the Team to Beat
Rugby might be venturing into new territory by hosting the 2019 World Cup in Japan but the team to beat at this year’s tournament remains a familiar foe: New Zealand’s All Blacks.
The Springboks may be resurgent; Ireland may be ranked number one; Wales just beat real tournament contenders, England; and Phil Kearns will tell you the Wallabies could still surprise everyone. However, anyone with a modicum of rugby knowledge knows it is the men from Aotearoa that stand the best chance of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy on 2 November.
A quick glance at the team sheets of all of the aforementioned nations reveals that the Men in Black have the fewest weaknesses of any squad at the World Cup. Sure, Steve Hansen may worry about Ben Smith’s self-belief or Beauden Barrett’s goal kicking consistency, but the truth of the matter is that no other coach at the tournament enjoys the same luxury of depth as the man the Kiwis call “Shag”.
Take the Boks for example. There are real question marks around the scrumming ability of their first choice tighthead Frans Malherbe and Trevor Nyakane is said to still be carrying a knee injury from their game against Japan. Eben Etzebeth has a possible assault charge hanging over his head, which could see him sent home, while at flyhalf the Boks have no real replacement for Handre Pollard should he get injured. Yes, Frans Steyn can cover flyhalf, but it’s never really been his preferred position. Then there’s the midfield combination of De Allende and Am, which many a Bok supporter will tell you is more a political selection than a rugby one. Mapimpi has pace to burn but can be suspect on defence. On their day, the Boks can beat anyone and tournament rugby seems to suit their siege mentality. However, they will need a lot to go right for them if they are to be crowned champions for a third time. In many ways their entire tournament hinges on their first game against the All Blacks in a few days’ time. If they win that they’ll become tournament favourites overnight. Lose and the All Blacks will have one hand on the trophy.
Strangely, England appear to be the most settled team after the All Blacks. Under Eddie Jones they have developed a more complete game than their usual 10-man fare. As always their forward pack will be formidable but they now have a backline that can create real trouble for the opposition. Johnny May is a highly underrated wing and with the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga they have backline brawn to go with their pace. If Farrell can keep his shoulder in check and stay out of referees’ sights, they may well just pip the Boks as the team most likely to meet the All Blacks in the final.
Ireland may be ranked number one but not even World Rugby believes that a ranking system that doesn’t have the All Blacks installed at the top of the current rugby pecking order is a credible reflection of reality. If Argentina’s Augustin Pichot, the vice president of World Rugby, could label Wales’ brief jaunt as the number one ranked team as “ridiculous” then I’d hate to know what he thinks of Ireland taking top spot, particularly after their recent 57-17 drubbing by England. Interestingly, Pichot also riled Ireland coach Joe Schmidt when he criticized the decision to omit Leinster lock Devin Toner from Ireland’s 31-man squad. Clearly, Ireland is a quality team that is supremely well coached by the Kiwi Schmidt, but I don’t think anyone outside of a Dublin pub truly thinks they’ll be crowned Rugby World Champions in a month’s time.
Wales is another Kiwi-coached Celtic dark horse. They have quality from 1 to 15 and in Warren Gatland they have one of the world’s most experienced, if not respected, coaches. Like England they have a healthy balance of mobile muscle upfront and well-drilled runners out back. They certainly have the raw talent to trouble the likes of the All Blacks but whether they have the self-belief to knock them over is another matter entirely, particularly after the disruption caused by assistant coach Rob Howley being sent home for betting-rule violations. Wales should still be semi-final contenders, and may even make it to the final, but I can’t see the World Cup spending the next four years in Cardiff.
That leaves us with Australia, a team that only Phil Kearns loves enough to tout as all conquering rugby world champions based on current form. But while we may mock Kearnsey in public, deep down we know that there is some truth behind his apparent Wallaby madness. Unlike England, who can swing from bizarre arrogance after a few feeble wins to utter despair after a hard-fought loss, the Aussies are typically nonchalant in victory and utterly defiant in defeat. Only a fool would dismiss the Wallabies chances. They have an uncanny ability to conjure victory out of nothing and despite everyone writing them off they still have an excellent chance of making the semis. Whether they’ll make it to the final is another matter though. Better Wallaby teams than this one have failed to do so and even if by some minor miracle they do make it to the final, it seems unlikely that they’ll emerge victorious, especially if it’s against the All Blacks or Springboks. Sorry Kearnsey, but it looks like you’re going to have to wait four more years for this one.
As for the rest of the teams at the tournament…well what can one really say? France will no doubt flatter to deceive (again). Samoa, Tonga and Fiji will combine their customary physicality with flashes of utter brilliance but most likely won’t progress beyond the quarter finals at best. Hosts Japan will put on a brave showing but are unlikely to go very far despite the promise they showed in beating the Boks in 2015.
So when the 2nd of November finally rolls around in just over six weeks’ time, I for one will certainly be hoping against an All Black “three-peat.” However, just like Rob Howley, I certainly won’t be betting against it.