WELLINGTON – New Zealand has performed a deft mental sidestep to avoid two unpalatable truths about its bid to retain the Rugby World Cup title.
The All Blacks weaved to avoid a collision with uncomfortable reality: the recognition that they’re attempting to become the first team to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups and the first New Zealand team to win it overseas.
That they are favored to achieve both of those objectives in Britain would seem to greatly add to the pressure. But this is the All Blacks — they’re always expected to win.
“For us the pressure is no greater than it normally is,” coach Steven Hansen said. “There’s just a bigger box of chocolates at the end of it.”
Australia could claim to be the leading Southern Hemisphere contender for the World Cup after winning the 2015 Rugby Championship with victories over New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.
The Australians also have won the World Cup in the Northern Hemisphere on two occasions: in 1991 when the tournament was shared by the four Home Unions and France and again in 1999 when Wales was the main host. South Africa won the 2007 World Cup in France, so all three tournaments in the Northern Hemisphere have been won by southern teams.
It does chafe with the All Blacks that they haven’t been able to follow Australia or South Africa in winning the World Cup away from home.
Their previous campaigns in Britain were all impeccably planned but fatally flawed. In 1991, they picked a squad that was too old — the remnant on the 1987 winning team — and which had co-coaches who loathed each other.
In 1999, they underestimated a French team which rallied from 24-10 down to win their semifinal 43-31. In 2007, France again ended the All Blacks campaign, this time in the quarterfinals.
Richie McCaw survived that defeat to lead New Zealand to the 2011 title and will captain the All Blacks again at this World Cup, as world rugby’s most-capped player.
The All Blacks have lost only three times in the four years since lifting the World Cup in Auckland, and the squad selected for the tournament is the most experienced New Zealand has sent to a World Cup, with 1,487 caps.
The Rugby Championship title boosted Australia’s confidence but doubts remain that the Wallabies have either the depth or sufficient players of world class to win a third World Cup title.
The Wallabies are in the toughest of the groups, pitted against host England, Wales and Fiji. Taking only two hookers and two specialist scrumhalves is a massive gamble and Australia doesn’t have a flyhalf of the caliber of Michael Lynagh or Stephen Larkham, who steered the Wallabies to previous World Cup victories.
But coach Michael Cheika is confident his plan will serve Australia well.
“We are pretty comfortable with the plan we’ve got and what that first team looks like,” Cheika said. “There is no guarantee that your plan is going to work but we definitely have one, contrary to popular opinion, and we are following it pretty much to the letter.”
South Africa’s buildup has been harried by injuries and it has drawn many older players back into its squad as the bulwark of its campaign.
Some of those players are likely past their best but others, such as the lock Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers, can be relied on to give of their best in this tournament. There’s also a strong injection of youth.
Coach Heyneke Meyer has resisted controversy over the racial makeup of his squad to pull together a team he believes can win a World Cup. He has allowed senior players to make their way back from injuries at their own pace with the aim of peaking for the tournament.
“There have been a lot of injuries, but the players have really recovered well,” Meyer said. “I have to be honest and say these players are true warriors. They have been through a great deal and they are mentally tough.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5