New Zealand have the home support, enough quality players to field about 3 teams capable of winning the thing and the comfort of whichever local glamour model’s bed they choose. They look virtually guaranteed to claim their first World Cup since the inaugural tournament so is there any point in the other teams even turning up? Well no, probably not, but here’s five very speculative reasons why they may not claim that much coveted Webb Ellis trophy.
The mere mention of the All Blacks name sends most teams into a quivering pile of jelly, but the Wallabies have long since discovered that their fabled neighbours are as fallible and suspect as the plot lines of Neighbours. We know the Aussies are brash enough to claim New Zealand don’t worry them and the regularity with which they repeat the claim is almost enough to make you believe them. Sure New Zealand have the history, the best pre-match dance and the biggest pool of talent, but at the end of the day, in the eyes of the Wallabies, it’s fifteen versus fifteen and when the time comes to endure the needless intimidation of the Haka, they know they can stand up to the challenge.
Australia don’t have anything like the strength in depth of the All Blacks, but as we’ve seen in the past, their first choice teams don’t have the same gulf in class and the Wallabies know how to execute a well-timed metaphorical kick in the nuts to their rivals. Plus, New Zealand is close to Australia, so this is pretty much a home tournament for them, isn’t it? Well no, but there isn’t likely to be too much by way of culture shocks, there should be a considerable amount of travelling support and they’ve drawn Ireland and Italy in their pool – so it’s all looking rather good at this moment in time.
2. Is Choking In Their DNA?
At what point does choking make the leap from being a surprise to simply being the norm? If you’re constantly being told you’re destined to fail, eventually the seeds of doubt will take root and inhibit your performance and this generation of All Blacks have grown up seeing their predecessors throw plenty of World Cups away when they’re clearly the best team on the planet. When it comes to the crunch, some people just can’t handle the pressure. We call him Sergio Garcia. The lingering fear is that collectively, the All Blacks will get a big enough dose of stage fright to inhibit their technical dominance and brings them down to a more beatable level. Their ability to run up cricket scores in the pool stages is matched only by their ability to freeze in the headlights of the latter stages of the tournament. They’ve reached at least a semi-final in 5 of the 6 World Cups to date, but only converted that into one trophy. It makes Arsene Wenger’s recent record of silverware look almost prolific.
Admittedly, this point is rendered somewhat defunct by the Spanish team who defied years and years of talented teams finding ways to lose to become the dominant force in world soccer with wins in Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, but is the time really right for the All Blacks to shake off their most unwanted of labels? We’ll find out in about 7 weeks time.
3. South Africa
Historically and statistically, the Boks are the closest thing to a thorn in the side the All Blacks have. New Zealand still hold the narrow advantage in the head to head record, but South Africa have made life more uncomfortable for them than any other team down through the years. The evidence of the recent Tri-Nations series wouldn’t have too many All Blacks worried, but two points need to be taken into account. Firstly, the year or so before a World Cup is all about developing the squad and wrapping the front-liners in cotton wool and secondly, there’s enough leadership within the set-up to counteract the deficiencies of coach, Peter De Villiers.
South Africa didn’t impress too many in the abridged Tri-Nations, but when they returned to something approaching full strength towards the end, they reminded the All Blacks that they’re not going to be a pushover. They’ll continue to revert to type when the chips are down – that gritty, horribly beautiful type that has stood them so well so often in the past and there’ll be little to choose between the two sides should events transpire as expected and they meet in the semi-finals. It’s still likely to be a game the All Blacks are favoured to win, but it’s no foregone conclusion.
4. They’re Perennially Over-Hyped Because Of Marketing Gimps
Perhaps the most important work in creating the aura of invincibility around New Zealand doesn’t all come from the hours and hours on the training pitch or in the gym, maybe it comes from the marketing department of Adidas. While other rugby equipment manufacturers tend to build their marketing campaigns around the ‘our jersey will hide your beer belly’ concept – an important consideration for the typical rugby fan – Adidas have spent millions telling us the All Blacks are great and if we want to have a smidgen of their greatness we should by Adidas manufactured All Blacks products. There’s no doubt that the All Blacks are good, but the notion of just how superior they are to everyone else hasn’t been hurt by years and years of being fed that line through various forms of awestruck advertising.
The All Blacks do have a number of players that can genuinely be considered amongst the greatest players to have ever played the game, but contrary to the story peddled by Adidas, not every single player who pulls on the famous jersey is a legend in the making and they do have their weaknesses. It’s not something they say too often around the Adidas offices, but the truth is a black piece of fabric does not automatically imbue you with super-human powers and all the billboards in the world won’t change that. The players who will represent New Zealand throughout the World Cup are as liable to commit errors, make poor decisions and generally underperform as anyone else. They are however in the happy situation of having top quality replacements ready to go on the bench, so if there is a below par performance, the team to benefit needs to pounce on it immediately. We’re not saying the All Blacks aren’t awesome, they just may not be as awesome as several marketing campaigns tell us.
Facing off against an opponent standing in the orthodox, technically perfect boxing stance isn’t a problem. You know what to expect and you can prepare for it. The problem is facing off against someone who’s stumbling, flailing wildly and liable to try almost anything in an attempt to floor you is the worry. France isn’t exactly the angry drunk of world rugby, but they have an unpredictability about them that will make the All Blacks uneasy about playing them – not so much in the pool stages, but if their paths cross later in the tournament.
The French shrug casually and give off the impression they don’t really care. It’s virtually the polar opposite to the All Blacks where the importance of winning a World Cup and exerting your superiority is virtually drilled into the nation’s psyche. Of course Les Bleus would like to win a World Cup, but they also give off a vibe that if it doesn’t happen, it’s not going to prey on their minds as they spend the rest of their lives reading existentialist philosophy and puff on Gauloises in whatever lazy stereotype of a café we think all former France players gather to spend their lazy stereotype of a retirement. For all its flaws, the carefree attitude has proven to be the best way to approach a game with the All Blacks and one that’s yielded some stunning victories over the years.
France will worry the All Blacks because despite knowing they’re the better team, when the French play with freedom and fearlessness they’re virtually impossible to contain – especially for a team hoping to play an exciting brand of rugby all of their own. Even in spite of having Marc Lievremont at the helm, France are still capable of fielding an immensely talented team. Their unpredictability has ambushed the All Blacks in the past and the memories of 2007 haven’t gone away.