New Zealand will enter the 2019 Rugby World Cup as favourites – maybe not by a huge margin, but the shortest odds will definitely be on the All Blacks taking out the competition for the third time in a row.
Ignoring the strengths of the other teams for one moment, there are a few different reasons why the men in black might not do the triple.
A raft of Injuries
It’s become rare in the modern era for a national squad to have access to all their players at any given time: injuries are just another part of international rugby.
Damian McKenzie won’t feature at all for the All Blacks in the World Cup and Brodie Retallick will probably be available for just the quarter-finals.
There’s no doubt going to be more injuries to come, too.
Luke Jacobson, the biggest bolter in the squad, has been struggling with concussion issues for the last couple of years. He missed all of 2018’s Mitre 10 Cup season and also sat out the first and last few weeks of the Chiefs’ campaign this season.
Jacobson managed an appearance off the bench against Argentina but then wasn’t able to travel to Perth for the first Bledisloe test after a recurrence of concussion symptoms.
“I was on the pads against South Africa and went through fitness the Monday afterwards and had a bit of a headache,” Jacobson said.
“Then it got worse and it felt like another concussion.”
Concussion is about as scary an injury a player can go through – you never know long the issues will linger. In Jacobson’s case, it seems like even fairly innocuous events can retrigger the symptoms, which should be worrying for everyone in the All Blacks camp.
The current squad has already been hit hard by injuries this year.
Retallick missed a sizeable chunk of Super Rugby, alongside his Chiefs co-captain Sam Cane. Cane has quickly found a rich vein of form but even prior to his shoulder injury, Retallick wasn’t operating anywhere near his best.
Ryan Crotty made an appearance for Canterbury this weekend but will hit the World Cup with just a single international cap under his belt this year (assuming he’s named in the side to face Tonga next week) due to a broken thumb. His Crusaders teammate, Scott Barrett, missed the first couple of Rugby Championship games and managed just half a game against Australia before getting a red card. He will unavailable for selection until the World Cup.
There are further issues in the midfield with both Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue currently undercooked. Goodhue mustered just one and a half games during this year’s internationals whilst Williams, who sat out a good chunk of the Super Rugby season, has played in just two test this year.
Injuries – both before and during the tournament – have curtailed a few Rugby World Cup campaigns in the past. The All Blacks aren’t exactly in tip-top shape as the competition approaches and will be hoping they can escape with no further set-backs.
Lack of sudden death experience
The Southern Hemisphere sides – and the All Blacks in particular – aren’t exactly used to gruelling, do-or-die matches.
The Rugby Championship, despite what SANZAAR may want you to think, is a low-stakes, low-pressure competition. Even if we cast aside the fact no one really seems to care about the tournament as a whole, winning it has hardly been a tough ask for the All Blacks in recent times.
Only twice in the tournament’s eight-year history have New Zealand not taken out the trophy.
Argentina have not lived up to their promise and are almost a guaranteed 4 or 5 competition points for the All Blacks. New Zealand have blooded more players to test rugby against Argentina than any other team; they simply haven’t been a challenge to the black machine. The Springboks and the Wallabies have sometimes struggled against the Pumas but that’s only made the competition easier for the All Blacks.
The home sides have traditionally had a major advantage in the Rugby Championship, given the significant travel factor. There’s little pressure on the All Blacks when they play at home because there’s just such a low chance of them losing.
New Zealand haven’t struggled to top the ladder because Argentina gift them a pair of wins every year. Couple that with their two home victories against South Africa and Australia and they can even afford to drop an away match or two.
The short of it is the All Blacks have rarely faced pressure in a Rugby Championship that would come close to what they’ll face in the World Cup. The only times that individual games have had a major bearing on the tournament have been in the two World Cup years where each team plays only three games.
Notably, New Zealand fell short in both those years.
On the other side of the equator, the team that wins the Six Nations has to regularly do it without dropping any fixtures. One loss can be fatal to a campaign – which is not the case at all in the Rugby Championship.
Many European-based players inevitably end up playing in the Champions Cup – which has a rigorous finals draw. Maybe five years ago the Super Rugby sudden death fixtures compared to the pointy end of the European season but the atmosphere and quality of the Northern Hemisphere club season now comfortably trumps what’s going on down south.
That’s not to say the All Blacks won’t cope with tight, do-or-die games. England, Ireland and Wales have far more experience in that area, however. If matches remain close heading into the final quarter then it could be the Northern Hemisphere sides who have the advantage.
The weight of expectation
The All Blacks have been on top of the world for the last ten years. Wales may have spent the last week at the top of the world rankings but they crashed and burned against Ireland over the weekend.
Probably no team in any sport ever has quite as much a burden placed upon their shoulders as the New Zealand national side do.
No matter where they’re playing, no matter who they’re up against, the expectation is that the All Blacks will win.
Since they took over at the top of the rankings in 2009, New Zealand have played 129 matches and lost just 12 of those games. They’ve also had four draws during that period.
A quarter of those losses and draws have come in just the last year, however, indicating New Zealand don’t have quite the same dominance right now as they have had in the past.
That won’t stop the nation throwing their belief behind the All Blacks.
Unlike other countries, where the majority of fans seems to see the lone grey cloud in the sky, Kiwi fans have tended to expect the best from their team, even where they’re not playing especially well.
Sure, losses may be treated as a sign of the end times for about a week – but a win of any calibre tends to reset the mood to one of unprecedented optimism.
Every All Blacks loss, no matter who it’s against, comes as a major shock. That means even though New Zealand haven’t been playing particularly well in the last year, the general expectation emanating from NZ fans is the All Blacks will take the World Cup.
That’s a huge burden for the current crop of players to shoulder.
In the last two World Cups, the All Blacks have had plenty of experienced players to fall back on – guys with over 100 test caps, or players who have tasted defeat at a World Cup.
That’s not the case this year.
Only Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock are test match centurions in the current team. In 2015, the All Blacks had Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Richie McCaw, and Dan Carter – with Ma’a Nonu only a few short. McCaw and Mils Muliana were the sole 100-cap-plus players at the 2011 tournament – but Andrew Hore, Ali Williams, Andy Ellis, Mealamu, Conrad Smith, Woodcock, McCaw, Carter and Muliaina had all been a part of the squad which was knocked out of the quarter-finals in 2007.
Looking at the current squad, some players probably barely remember the 2007 World Cup. Luke Jacobson, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece and Jordie Barrett would have all been just 10 years old when the All Blacks suffered their worst ever World Cup result – do they have the experience to deal with the weight of the nation?
There’s no question that the All Blacks are one of the best teams in the world right now. They won’t enter the 2019 World Cup with crazy short odds to take out the trophy, however, because their dominance has fallen away in the last 12 months. Obviously it will come down to what happens on the day but fans would be wise to wrangle in their expectations: this tournament is not simply New Zealand’s to lose.
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