Ireland. Just one reason winning successive World Cups couldn’t be further from a formality for the All Blacks.
On recent evidence, next year’s tournament could be the most open ever. As the world’s best team – losing twice in their past 42 tests which includes two draws – the All Blacks will be inevitable favourites to become the first team to defend the Webb Ellis crown.
However their just-completed November internationals, accompanied by Ireland’s rise as the form force in Europe, reaffirmed the theory they are far from the Usain Bolt of the global game. Those fast-twitch fibers don’t last forever.
To a certain extent, Warren Gatland was right in asserting his side ‘rattled’ the All Blacks in Cardiff. Their rush defence, coupled with frequent inaccurate short kicks from the All Blacks, stymied the visitor’s attack. Well, for 70 minutes anyway. After that Wales capitulated again. And Gatland’s record against the big three Southern Hemisphere nations slipped to an astonishing one from 27. It’s been six long years since Wales succeeded against those consistently top-ranked nations. Not even a Lions series can hide such revealing numbers.
After conceding 19 points in less than 10 minutes to blow their best chance of toppling the All Blacks in recent memory, Gatland should be focusing on his side’s lack of fitness and continued dearth of belief. Sixty-one years of agony lives on – and yet with only some added composure Wales proved they are more than capable of upsetting England and Australia in the fascinating ‘pool of death’ next year.
The All Blacks reminded England, the improving Scots, Wales and Australia this year the final 10 minutes is imperative. For now at least, no-one can match their depth, incredible impact from the bench, conditioning, leadership and mental toughness to close out tight, tense test matches. But, as the Springboks showed in Johannesburg, that won’t always be enough.
Aspects of the All Blacks play have become predictable. Tier one opposition have, almost universally, discovered by flooding specific breakdowns in numbers and slowing down the game in every way possible they can severely blunt the All Blacks lethal fast-paced high-tempo style.
First developed in 2005, the ‘tip-ons’ from tight-forwards, which put big men one-on-one with defenders just before contact, is now much less effective.
The tactic of using forwards in pods – stationing the hooker and blindside flanker on one side and the remaining loosies on other – works well to create space on the outside for athletes such as Kieran Read and Dane Coles, but the cleanout has suffered. Too often Steve Hansen’s pack neglected their core roles of moving bodies. This leaves Aaron Smith digging, rather than clearing the ball at his unrivalled pace. The rolling maul – certain to play a key role at the World Cup – will be another talking point during the Kiwi summer.
And while it’s great to possess four classy first five-eighths, settling on one next year is paramount. Daniel Carter is favoured to regain form with the Crusaders but enjoying a consistent run at No.10 may be problematic with Colin Slade in the same team.
For all the All Blacks’ success since their breakthrough in 2011, a potential quarter-final in Cardiff against France or Ireland highlights the unpredictability surrounding the tournament. Despite management’s best efforts, a repeat of 2007 is not inconceivable. Not least due to the shaky confidence in some officials.
Ireland have been the big movers. Back-to-back wins over the Boks and Wallabies for the first time since 2006 is a notable achievement for the Six Nations champions. Once he gets through a suspected appendicitis, Joe Schmidt can reflect on guiding his team to third in the world. No-one can argue with that deserved ranking.
Australia must surely now realise their issues reside not with revolving coaches, but an inability to form a routinely competitive forward pack. Attacking brilliance is not sustainable without some mongrel upfront. Like his predecessors, Michael Cheika – bizarrely allowed to coach the NSW Waratahs and Wallabies next year – faces a huge task to overcome this inherent problem.
Pressure is mounting on Stuart Lancaster, too. There is a sense, though, once Manu Tuilagi returns to the English midfield, their game may come together.
At this juncture, a case could be made that South Africa – the only team to triumph over the All Blacks this year – Ireland, England at home, and you dare not leave out the flaky French, who must persist with new halves pairing Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Camille Lopez, are genuine World Cup contenders. Wales’ mental block with those south of the equator could, ultimately, be their undoing.
On the beach this summer, the All Blacks will be well aware of the mammoth challenge before them.