New Zealand are the number one ranked side in the world, the home nation, and perennial favourites to win the rugby world cup. However; they haven’t won it since 1987, the last time it was contested in New Zealand.
The year started well for the All Blacks, with a simple warm up victory over Fiji followed by two convincing home wins against Australia and South Africa. However, the side sent to South Africa was without many of the first choice players and the All Blacks paid the price, losing to the fired up Boks. Worse was to follow for the All Blacks as the top side, re-united in Brisbane, was defeated by a fired up Wallaby team in the tri nations decider. Now the All Blacks must go into the world cup hoping that home advantage will be enough once again. The All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park, venue of all their knock-out matches, since 1994 – a string of 23 matches. Will the home advantage be decisive?
The front row of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Owen Franks have been solid without ever getting real dominance in the tri nations this year – Woodcock playing only the last two games as he comes back from injury. New Zealand have depth at lock where Brad Thorn offers size and scrummaging power, Ali Williams and Anthony Boric are experienced hands and Sam Whitelock the athletic up and comer.
In the back row, the starting trio of Kaino, captain McCaw and Read are the equal of any in the world, but Read is in doubt for the start of the world cup with an injury sustained during the final tri nations match. The loose forward reserves are relatively untested, especially with fellow loosie Adam Thompson, who can play any of the back row positions, also an injury doubt after the Brisbane match.
In the backs, New Zealand have taken a “horses for courses” approach with their halfbacks in recent times, with Weepu and Cowan taking turns to start. Dan Carter is undoubtedly one of the best flyhalves in the world, but backup Colin Slade has little international experience and was the subject of criticism in his last test start during the tri nations loss in South Africa. First choice centre pairing Nonu and Smith have shown out well in recent seasons, and although no-one is quite sure who the starting outside backs will be, that is as much down to outstanding depth as anything. The team has averaged 3 tries per test match in the tri nations this year and opponents will be wary of the All Blacks’ ability to counter attack from anywhere.
New Zealand have a big test against France in their group, which will also be held at their Eden Park stronghold. If they pass, they will top the group and earn a quarter final against the second place team in group B, likely to be Scotland or Argentina. If results go according to world rankings, the All Blacks can then expect to meet South Africa in the semi finals. Can the All Blacks go all the way? If they ever wish to shake the tag of chokers, this is the time.
Props: Tony Woodcock, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, John Afoa
Hookers: Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Corey Flynn
Locks: Brad Thorne, Ali Williams, Sam Whitelock, Anthony Boric
Flankers: Richie McCaw (C), Jerome Kaino, Adam Thompson
No. 8s: Kieran Read, Victor Vito
Halfbacks: Piri Weepu, Jimmy Cowan, Andy Ellis
Flyhalves: Dan Carter, Colin Slade
Centres: Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui
Outside backs: Mils Muliana, Israel Dagg, Isaia Toeava, Corey Jane, Zac Guildford
2011 results (most recent first): L, L, W, W, W. 2nd in 3N.
Tries in 2011: 12 in 4 matches in 3N. 7 in 1 tri nations warm up match (vs Fiji).
Main goal kickers: Carter, Slade.