Our ‘State of the Nation’ series is drawing to a close. In this edition, we look at current World Champions New Zealand and ask ‘Is there any chance they won’t win it again’?
The biggest question of this World Cup is ‘Will anyone beat the All Blacks’? No matter which way you look at it, it seems unlikely. Yes they crawled over the line four years ago, but that was against a backdrop of injuries and the expectations of a home crowd that had not seen the Webb Ellis lifted since 1987. This time around, and although Steve Hansen’s men will be putting pressure on themselves to become the first nation to achieve back-to-back World Cup wins, New Zealand will be in a better place physically and psychologically than they were in 2011. They will be harder to beat because of it.
Can they be beaten? Yes they can and they have been beaten since that Eden Park final four years back. But, and here’s the rub, they’ve only been beaten three times during that period. That’s three losses out of 47 games. Plaudits go to England, South Africa and Australia for being those three. It’s no coincidence that this trio (along with the Kiwis) are the only nations to have won the World Cup to date. The mantra should go ‘If you want to be the world champions, you’ve gotta beat the All Blacks.’
But ‘can they be beaten’ and ‘will they’ are two complete different questions. If the unlikely is to happen over the next six weeks, it will happen in one of the following matches. Below we list the potential slip-ups for the greatest team on the planet and the likelihood of a loss coming to pass…
POOL STAGE: New Zealand vs Argentina, Wembley Stadium, Sunday 20th September
Could the All Blacks ever succumb to opening game jitters? If so, Argentina are not the team to face. They famously spoilt France’s big night in the opening match of the 2007 tournament. They also have more recent form in causing upsets following their historic win in South Africa. An off guard New Zealand against a fired-up Argentina? Can we see Richie McCaw’s side losing?
Likelihood of a loss: Pigs might fly.
QUARTER-FINAL: New Zealand vs France (probably)/Ireland (possibly), Millennium Stadium, Saturday 17th October
Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks. They came close in 2013, but are still yet to do it. A quarter-final in a Rugby World Cup would be a good time to start but New Zealand would always have the psychological advantage in such a scenario. The thing that makes the All Blacks the best side in the world is their ability to think clearly under pressure. It’s that so-called ‘top three inches’ which wins them their closest contests. As such, you’d always back them against Ireland.
France on the other hand are New Zealand’s bogey team. Their World Cup Kryptonite. The stuff of which World Cup nightmares are made of. The French have knocked the Kiwis out before: once at Twickenham in the 1999 semi-final and, more recently, at the quarter-final stage of the 2007 tournament. That game was staged at, you guessed it, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. If the tournament goes to script and this match does occur, the Kiwis will certainly be reminded of 2007 all over again. They couldn’t let the same thing happen…could they?
Likelihood of a loss: No fears about Ireland, but could be edgy if the French await.
SEMI-FINAL: New Zealand vs South Africa/Australia/England/Wales, Saturday 24th October
This is where things get interesting and, if New Zealand are to slip-up, history tells us this is where they will do it (having departed at this stage in 1991, 1999 and 2003). If Wales are to be the opponents here then you would fancy New Zealand to progress for the same reason expressed above with Ireland. However, if it’s any of the other three (coincidentally the only three to have beaten the All Blacks in the last four years), then the champions will be less certain of themselves. Each brings a potentially new challenge:
– The best test matches of the last cycle have been New Zealand vs South Africa or vice-versa. The Springboks could’ve won more than the solitary victory they notched up in that time. They could certainly beat them.
– The Aussies are the most recent team to beat the All Blacks. They are still to prove whether they are back to their blistering best but the Wallabies know how to beat their nearest neighbour and oldest foe.
– England at Twickenham is never easy. If this is to be the line-up of Semi-Final 1, then the English faithful will be inspired by THAT victory from 2012. The All Blacks will claim once again that they were collectively suffering from a stomach virus. They could be feeling sick once again.
Likelihood of a loss: the best chance you’ll see this World Cup
FINAL: New Zealand vs France/England/Ireland/Australia/Wales, Saturday 31st October
If New Zealand do make it to the final, they will probably face one of the teams above having overcome their sternest test in the semis. The odds would suggest that their job will be slightly easier in the final as they almost certainly won’t meet the Springboks there. Yes, they could meet England or Australia but they could also meet Ireland or Wales, or even repeat the final of four years ago. In the three Rugby World Cup finals that the All Blacks have played in, they’ve lost only one…to South Africa. When a team who have only lost three times in four years gets to a final, you’d expect them to convert that chance.
Likelihood of a loss: Don’t hold out much hope here
So will anyone beat the All Blacks? It’s unlikely…but if it is going to happen, it’s going to happen at the semi-final stage.
Saturday 24th October could be a defining day in Rugby World Cup 2015.