AlanSolomons

All Blacks the team to beat

2011-06-29 09:27
Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
Alan Solomons

With the 2011 Rugby World Cup fast approaching, Alan Solomons runs the rule over the competing nations in a Sport24 exclusive. In our first instalment, he previews Pool A…

NEW ZEALAND

The All Blacks are a powerful side. They are very well-prepared and well-coached. Their strengths lie in Richie McCaw’s tremendous leadership and Daniel Carter’s ability to control the game from No 10. The All Blacks are capable of playing any style of rugby and they can adapt to various situations. They are blessed with dangerous outside backs and plenty of pace. They also have strength in depth with the emergence of Israel Dagg, Robbie Fruean and Sonny Bill Williams in particular. Their potential Achilles heel is that they don’t seem to have an adequate back-up at flyhalf should Carter be injured. To a similar extent, if McCaw were to get injured, leadership-wise they would struggle. While Kieran Read is an excellent player, he is not in the same class as McCaw in terms of leadership and composure. I believe they have a huge advantage playing at home and will be doubly motivated. I don’t share the theory that they choke at World Cups. I think the New Zealanders are very good under pressure and are a composed team. If you analyse where things have gone wrong at previous World Cups there are good rugby reasons why they did not work out. I believe there is nothing wrong with their temperament. In my view, they are the side to beat.     

Best result: Winners (1987)
Prediction: Potential champions   

FRANCE

Les Tricolores are an erratic side capable of either playing brilliantly or very poorly. You need only look at the high number of players who have represented France recently to understand why they have proved so inconsistent. Their loss to Italy in the most recent Six Nations was probably their lowest point in recent times. While Nick Mallett has done an excellent job with Italy, France should never lose to them considering the disparity in personnel available. That defeat in itself is a sign of where the French are at - currently at sixes and sevens. They chop and change very often, and an inconsistent selection policy has hurt them. There are however some consistently strong performers. Imanol Harinordoquy has become a key figure in their pack in terms of leadership, and captain Thierry Dusautoir is a solid loose forward who leads by example. In the backline, halfbacks Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc are very proficient players. Even though they are capable of pulling off the odd upset, I cannot see them being in the final reckoning and standing a chance of winning the World Cup. They will definitely qualify for the quarter-finals, but whether they progress will be dependant upon their draw. They will be fortunate to make the semi-finals and I don’t believe they will reach the final.

Best result: Runners-up (1987, 1999)
Prediction: Losing quarter-finalists

TONGA

The Pacific Islands continue to produce genetically gifted rugby players. They are a warrior nation, are always brave, and never shy away from the physical challenge. However, Tonga simply lack the firepower to prove a real factor at this World Cup. When the game is loose and opens up, they are fantastic. They thrive in general play, but are found wanting come set-piece time and struggle to assert dominance. They very often fail to lay a solid platform upfront and therefore cannot dictate the tempo in the match. However, Northampton Saints prop Soane Tonga’uiha is a very good player and will be a key man upfront. They are a competitive side, but they don’t quite have the pack of forwards to challenge New Zealand in particular. The All Blacks are superior in every facet of play. They also hold the All Blacks in awe and will be psychologically defeated before setting foot on the field. They will however have strong support as many South Sea Islanders are living in New Zealand, and this could work in their favour when they tackle Japan and Canada. If Tonga play to their potential, I see them defeating both Canada and Japan to claim third place in Pool A.

Best result: Third in pool (1995, 2007)
Prediction: Third in pool

JAPAN

New Zealander John Kirwan has done some solid work with the Cherry Blossoms. He has brought in a thoroughly professional approach and has access to innovative tools as far as strength and conditioning go. Their results in the past 18 months bear testament to the level of preparation. They are an ever-improving side thanks to a superior level of competition in the Pacific Nations Cup. They are well-organised, structured and well-disciplined. They are a side with intelligent players, but are not blessed genetically. They are particularly weak in the tight five. I also feel that they lack depth personnel wise. They are more of a force in the backline. James Arlidge, their flyhalf, is a good player. He is a guy who played for the Highlanders and Blues in Super Rugby. He controls the game well, has good skills, and is efficient. I feel that having a player of his experience and calibre is a big advantage for them. Their big game will be against Canada, and they are capable of beating them.

Best result: Third in pool (1991)
Prediction: Fourth in pool

CANADA

Kieran Crowley has done a good job as coach and has worked very hard with the team, but I feel they are very light on personnel. Canada were a fantastic side in 1991 when they had some fearsome forwards. In those days, big men from England and Scotland qualified to represent the Maple Leafs. These days, however, the demographics of the side have changed and they are not anywhere near as good a pack as they once were. Canada is a very brave side, but personnel wise they are lacking and I don’t think they have the grunt up front particularly in the front five. I believe they are going to struggle in that department and will likely be outmuscled. However, one man who will be crucial to their campaign is veteran lock Jamie Cudmore. The man from Clermont-Auvergne can change the whole dynamic of their play - he is that good. In the backs, South African born DTH van der Merwe is a very solid player. He is comfortable on the wing and in the centres and has played at fullback as well. The game they will target to win will be against Japan.

Best result: Quarter-finalists (1991)
Prediction: Last in pool

In next month' column, Alan Solomons will preview Pool B.

Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is currently EP Kings’ Director of Rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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