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All Blacks lead strong charge at RWC

2015-09-11 10:03
Steve Hansen (AFP)

Wellington - New Zealand have performed a deft mental sidestep to avoid two unpalatable truths about its bid to retain the Rugby World Cup.

The All Blacks weaved to avoid a collision with uncomfortable reality: the recognition that they're attempting to become the first team to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups and the first New Zealand team to win it overseas.

That they are favoured to achieve both of those objectives in Britain would seem to greatly add to the pressure. But this is the All Blacks - they're always expected to win.

"For us the pressure is no greater than it normally is," coach Steven Hansen said. "There's just a bigger box of chocolates at the end of it."

Australia could claim to be the leading southern hemisphere contender for the World Cup after winning the 2015 Rugby Championship with victories over New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.

The Australians also have twice won the World Cup in the northern hemisphere: in 1991 when the tournament was shared by the four Home Unions and France and again in 1999 when Wales was the main host.

South Africa won the 2007 World Cup in France, so all three tournaments in the northern hemisphere have been won by southern teams.

It does chafe with the All Blacks that they haven't been able to follow Australia or South Africa in winning the World Cup away from home.

Their previous campaigns in Britain were all impeccably planned but fatally flawed. In 1991 they picked a squad that was too old - the remnant on the 1987 winning team - and which had co-coaches who loathed each other.

In 1999 they took too lightly a French team which rallied from 24-10 down to win their semi-final 43-31. In 2007, France again ended the All Blacks campaign, this time in the quarterfinals.

Richie McCaw survived that defeat to lead New Zealand to the 2011 title and will again captain the All Blacks at this World Cup, as world rugby's most-capped players.

The All Blacks have lost only three times in the four years since lifting the World Cup in Auckland, and the squad selected for the tournament is the most experienced New Zealand has sent to a World Cup, with 1,487 caps.

It has a powerful core of experience but also exciting young players such as the wingers Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea, locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. It also has good depth, which may be critical as injuries occur, and it has tactical versatility.

"For a long time this team has been the No. 1 side in the world and you can't just plod along doing what you always do," Hansen said. "You need something else to get you motivated and this certainly has got them motivated. It's step up or go home."

The Rugby Championship title boosted Australia's confidence but doubts remain that the Wallabies have either the depth or sufficient players of world class to win a third World Cup title.

The Wallabies are in the toughest of the groups, pitted against hosts England, Wales and Fiji. Taking only two hookers and two specialist scrumhalves is a massive gamble and Australia hasn't a flyhalf of the calibre of Michael Lynagh or Stephen Larkham, who steered the Wallabies to previous World Cup victories.

But coach Michael Cheika is confident his plan will serve Australia well.

"We are pretty comfortable with the plan we've got and what that first team looks like," Cheika said. "There is no guarantee that your plan is going to work but we definitely have one, contrary to popular opinion, and we are following it pretty much to the letter."

South Africa's build-up has been harried by injuries and it has drawn many older players back into its squad as the bulwark of its campaign.

Some of those players are likely past their best but others, such as the lock Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers, can be relied on to give of their best in this tournament. There's also a strong injection of youth.

The Springboks won't be hampered by northern hemisphere conditions and have a wide range of tactical options, even drawing on the veteran Morne Steyn as a third-choice flyhalf who could implement a 10-man game if that's what conditions dictate.

Coach Heyneke Meyer has resisted controversy over the racial makeup of his squad to pull together a team he believes can win a World Cup. He has allowed senior players to make their way back from injuries at their own pace with the aim of peaking for the tournament.

"There have been a lot of injuries, but the players have really recovered well," Meyer said. "I have to be honest and say these players are true warriors. They have been through a great deal and they are mentally tough."

Argentina is in the same pool as New Zealand and is likely to emerge from that group whatever the outcome of their September 21 opener against the All Blacks.

The Pumas have built depth through their involvement in the Rugby Championship, have a solid core or experience and have developed a dangerous attacking game. Flyhalf Nicolas Santos, playing behind a formidable pack, makes the Pumas a potentially tricky opponent for any team.

Captain Agustin Creevy was a member of the Argentina team that finished third at the 2007 World Cup, and he believes the Pumas will make an impact at this tournament.

"Our dream is to be world champions and a nearer one is to beat the All Blacks, but we must go step by step," Creevy said. "We can have an historic World Cup."

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