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The All Blacks’ road to Rugby World Cup glory starts in Mendoza

By Finn Morton
Sam Cane and the All Blacks sing the national anthem during The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina Pumas at FMG Stadium Waikato on September 03, 2022 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Win, lose or draw, the All Blacks’ hopes of winning the Rugby World Cup will neither be realised nor dashed when they get their international campaign underway this weekend.

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Having made the long trip to South America on Sunday, the All Blacks are now just a couple of days away from their Rugby Championship opener against Los Pumas in Mendoza.

While rugby fans continue to count down the days until the opening match of the sport’s most prestigious event – 64 days at the time of writing – they’ll have to wait a little bit longer.

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All Blacks captain Sam Cane won’t hoist the Webb Ellis Cup in triumph this weekend, and the team can’t etch their name into the record books as world champions.

On the flip side of that very same coin, the New Zealanders won’t be made to wait four more years for another chance at glory. At least not yet.

But that doesn’t take anything away from this highly anticipated Test match. In a World Cup year, this TRC clash simply means more – it just has to.

The road to Rugby World Cup glory starts in Mendoza on Sunday morning (NZST). Ian Foster and Co have to get it right.

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Failing to do so may lead to a sense of panic amongst supporters, and could force selectors to give up on players, combinations and strategies far too soon.

The Rugby Championship will set the tone for their World Cup campaign, and for the All Blacks, it all starts in Argentina.

On a beautiful day in Mendoza, with birds chirping and barely a cloud in the sky, All Blacks assistant coach Jason Ryan briefly met with this journalist for a quick interview on Monday.

With a smile on his face, Ryan was visibly in good spirits ahead of the All Blacks’ first Test match of 2023. The squad had just assembled at their hotel the night before, and were about to head out for their first gym session.

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Clearly, the All Blacks were settling in quite nicely.

But during our brief conversation, Ryan seemed almost shocked after hearing me mutter the phrase ‘Rugby World Cup.’

Ryan was quite dismissive, saying that “We haven’t really even talked about the World Cup.”

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The All Blacks are here to do a job. What happens in France later this year is out of their control for the time being – they’re focused on the Pumas.

The sentiment of that comment should instil a sense of confidence within fans of the three-time World Cup champions. They’re focused and aren’t underestimating a very physical Argentine side.

But from an external point of view, as someone who is not part of the All Blacks’ inner sanctum, it’s almost impossible not to think about these comments a bit more deeply.

While the All Blacks may not be thinking about the Rugby World Cup, rugby fans certainly are.

Time is running out, and while that’s exciting for fans, it’s potentially a challenge for the 20 teams set to chase rugby immortality in France.

With just four Test matches between now and their Rugby World Cup team naming, the All Blacks will be trialling players, combinations and strategies throughout The Rugby Championship.

Flyhalf Damian McKenzie was training at flyhalf on Tuesday, and Beauden Barrett at fullback. The pair have both been named to start in those positions on Saturday afternoon (local time).

It’s exciting, there’s no doubt about that.

If these two players can get the most out of each other on the field, then the All Blacks will be significantly better than what they were during an underwhelming start to their 2022 campaign.

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But if they don’t over the next few weeks, then the All Blacks may have to revert to older strategies – techniques that served the team well but failed to position them as world-beaters.

If it doesn’t work this weekend, then it might already be time to face the music ahead of next weekend’s clash against the Springboks in Auckland.

That’s what makes this weekend’s Test a quasi-Rugby World Cup opener. At least in terms of significance, it certainly is.

And that doesn’t just go for the All Blacks, either.

When the Springboks host the Wallabies in Pretoria, both teams – especially Australia under new coach Eddie Jones – will look to establish their identities.

Players will be thrust into the Test arena for the first time, and radical changes to the game plan may be introduced.

But if they can’t get it to click over the next few weeks, then what? Panic must follow.

Argentina have never beaten their southern hemisphere rivals from New Zealand on home soil, but will be full of belief after a couple of history-making victories over the New Zealanders – winning two of the last six Tests.

For a team fuelled by passion, confidence and a never-say-die attitude, Los Pumas will be licking their lips at the prospect of creating even more history in a Rugby World Cup year.

With a long flight home ahead of them, the All Blacks don’t want to be obsessing about a defeat. There’s always pressure on the All Blacks, but it feels a bit more intense this week.

They’re flying under the radar, and that’s an interesting reality for them ahead of the World Cup, but the All Blacks won’t want to crash and burn in Mendoza – but very well could.

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Turlough 5 hours ago
Jean de Villiers' three word response to 'best in the world' debate

This ‘raging’ debate is only happenning in media circles and has never been a topic in Ireland (although SA media are interested). It makes the media companies money I guess. SA are RWC champions and #1 ranked team although Ireland are back within a point there. The facts point to SA. For a lot of 2021 France beat ALL their rivals and Ireland similar in 2022-2023. It is not wrong to say that on such form either can be deemed to be the current best team if they have beaten all their rivals and ranked #1. The ‘have to have won a world cup’ stipulation is nonsense. The world cup draw and scheduling has been tailored to the traditional big teams since the start. The scheduling also which sees the big teams sheltered from playing a hard pool match the week before has also been a constant. It is extraordinary that for example France have made so many finals. Ireland who were realistically only contenders in 2023 were in a Pool with two other top 5 teams and had to play one of them 7 days before a quarter final against France or New Zealand. Always going to be a coin toss. Scotland’s situation was worse. New Zealand had great chances in 1995, 1999, 2007 but they could not win a tight RWC match. The first tight match they ever won was versus France in the 2011 final, literally they lost every other tight match before that. Some of those NZ teams around that era were #1 surely?

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