The All Blacks will begin the World Cup as defending champions
Like all previous World Cups, New Zealand will begin this one as favourites. However they have yet to win the title on foreign soil. Many theories have been bandied about as to why this is the case, ranging from All Blacks being unable to deal with the pressure of expectation, to curses hanging over the team.
It is true that New Zealand have greater strength and depth in comparison to their competitors, but this has generally been the case ahead of each World Cup. Despite the array of talent available to Steve Hansen, he can only select thirty one players in his squad and field fifteen on any given day.
Even though that fifteen might be the best team rugby has to offer, New Zealand, just like any other side, still rely on a number of key players. Many of these players are either coming to the end of their careers, or are carrying injuries. Richie McCaw for instance is thirty four years of age and has suffered from a number of well publicised concussions. He has also had more than his fair share of injuries, but chose to play through the pain, such as during the last World Cup or after he broke a rib against England.
Some in New Zealand would have you believe McCaw is already in already in decline, pointing to Sam Cane as his replacement. Indeed this season the All Black legend has missed twenty six tackles in comparison to Cane’s six, despite making forty six less. McCaw also falls a distant second in terms of the number of carries and meters gained. Similar issues surround the likes of Jerome Kaino, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Conrad Smith, Kieran Read, and importantly Dan Carter.
Indeed, Carter’s form this season has not been the best, as both Colin Slade and Beauden Barrett displayed their potential. The issue for New Zealand is that if Carter was suffer an injury or his form to continue being inconsistent, are Slade and Barrett capable of stepping up. This is pertinent as Aaron Cruden will miss the World Cup through injury, and between them, Slade and Barrett only hold 45 caps.
The same is true at hooker, where Dane Coles has only made 27 appearances for the All Blacks and Codie Taylor a solitary one. At 36 years of age, does Keven Mealamu have the stamina to last the intensity of the Rugby Championship and the World Cup.
What this means, is that New Zealand either have players that are hugely experienced or fairly green. This is particularly important as the All Blacks have a tendency to wilt under pressure at World Cups. If it does come to a point where Carter is for some reason not selected, can Steve Hansen rely on either Slade or Barrett? The statistics say no, with Barrett only nailing 66% of his kicks in Super Rugby this season and Slade 73%. Indeed it was an injury to Carter in the last World Cup, that led to Piri Weepu having to take responsibility from the kicking tee.
With Israel Dagg also suffering through injury and a lack of form, full back is another position where New Zealand might have some difficulty. Dagg has been a mainstay in the All Black squad for a number of years and has earned 46 caps. Although Ben Smith has overtaken Dagg, injuries to Cory Jane and Waisake Naholo, may see Smith play on the wing. It may also see Hansen call on the inexperiencd Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Therefore, while New Zealand might begin the World Cup with a side that boosts both youth and experience, it might not contain the right blend. It is possible that the Hansen may have began the process of transitioning his side far too late. If that is the case, has the 2011 generation the ability to withstand the rigours of two tough tournaments in a short space of time. Equally, have the 2015 crop, the experience to see off New Zealand’s competitors, and avoid being labelled as ‘chokers’.
Time will tell.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena