Rugby Championship

All Blacks still team to beat

2014-09-17 12:07
Richie McCaw (Getty Images)

Paris - New Zealand remain firm favourites to retain the Rugby World Cup title they won on home soil in 2011, a year out from the 20-team tournament in England.

Thursday will mark exactly a year to the day until the first match of rugby union's showpiece event, which will be staged in the sport's birthplace from September 18-October 31, 2015.

The All Blacks buried 24 years of hurt by not, for once, choking and deservedly going on to scoop rugby union's ultimate prize three years ago although not before a desperately close 8-7 final win over France.

It was the All Blacks' second global title after they beat France, also at Auckland's Eden Park, in 1987 in the inaugural World Cup and the fact they have not lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy on foreign soil is a comfort to their rivals.

Victorious coach Graham Henry has since passed the reins to assistant Steve Hansen, who has seen fit to hand skipper Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter - ruled out of the 2011 World Cup with a groin injury - sabbaticals to keep his key, albeit ageing, men in prime form for what promises to be a tough finale to their careers in England.

Hansen has also continued the team's winning ways.

The All Blacks are currently closing in on their third consecutive Rugby Championship, enjoy a 36-home Test winning streak and their sole defeat since winning the last World Cup came against England at Twickenham in December 2012.

But former Wales No 8 Eddie Butler, now a columnist and television commentator, said the All Blacks' most recent, narrow 14-10 victory over South Africa showed some deficiencies.

"A year out from the World Cup, it appears the All Blacks are not as untouchable as that unbeaten home run of 36 Tests might suggest," Butler wrote in the Guardian.

"And they are not, in these days when the World Cup is a constant reference, the best travellers to said tournament."

New Zealand look certain to dominate Pool B, first up against ever-improving Argentina, but then with three games against second-tier nations Tonga, Georgia and Namibia.

Should they win the pool, they will come up against the runners-up of Pool D, from which a Six Nations team will miss out, with France up against Ireland and Italy, along with Canada and Romania.

The Springboks will certainly be favourites to safely negotiate Pool B, which will likely see Samoa's final match against Scotland at St James' Park deciding the runner-up.

Pool A, however, is what Rugby World magazine's Stephen Jones has dubbed "preposterously strong with Australia, England, Wales and Fiji together, and leaving other pools of laughable weakness".

England, on home soil, with a hardened pack and a team determined to put the off-field shenanigans of 2011 behind them, should qualify, potentially leaving an Australia-Wales clash in Twickenham as the crunch match.

But who would write off Fiji, who famously beat the Welsh in 2007 and pushed the 'Boks all the way in the resulting quarter-final?

"South Africa and England are favoured as the next best bets, partly because they are the two nations on Earth not in awe of New Zealand," Jones said in the Sunday Times.

"Whether that can stop flashes of genius from the likes of Ben Smith, Julian Savea and Kieran Read is a different matter.

"Teams will know that they cannot afford to turn over any ball to New Zealand, and that their own kicking game must be immaculate. If these aspects are in place, New Zealand are eminently beatable next year."

One player likely not to turn out for England is five-times capped flanker Steffon Armitage, who is in the process of applying for a French passport in a bid to become part of Philippe Saint-Andre's France team, who had a dreadful 2013, losing 13 of their 19 matches.

Armitage and nine others were listed in an extended pre-World Cup list following an Olympic-inspired eligibility loophole that allows previously capped players the right to turn out for another country in rugby sevens -- which will make its Games debut at the 2016 Olympics in Rio - and thus 15s, provided they have not represented the first country for 18 months.

Read more on:    richie mccaw  |  rugby

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