The biggest event on the Rugby calendar is a few days out, and many supporters are discussing their team’s chances in the Rugby World Cup. Throughout all of the discussions, the most common theme is that the All Blacks are the favourites to defend their title, and be the first team to win three Webb Ellis Cups in a row. While it is certain that New Zealand will always be a threat in any tournament, this year’s World Cup does not seem to be so easy to give to the All Blacks in the lead up.
More than a year after the New Zealand Herald reporter, Chris Rattue, claimed that World Rugby should “Just give us the World Cup now” in August 2018, and the All Blacks have not only lost to Ireland and Australia and drew to South Africa, but they have also put together a string of inconsistent performances in 2019. They have also lost their World No. 1 title not once, but twice in the final four weeks leading up to the World Cup, despite many querying the validity of the World Ranking system.
Ignoring the difficult-to-grasp World Rankings, it must be said that the All Blacks have not been at their world dominating best since losing to Ireland in Dublin in November 2018. In that match, albeit a lot closer on the scoreboard than the last time the Irish beat them at Soldier Field in America, the men from the island of poets and scholars systematically dismantled the All Black game plan, starved them of possession, and broke down the All Blacks to their basic structures. This is the template that South Africa used in Wellington to earn a hard-fought draw in 2019. A week later, the best team in the world suffered their biggest defeat ever in their trans-Tasmin derby against Australia, losing 47-20 in Sydney.
The result against Australia is particularly interesting, as The All Blacks lacked composure and made a number of vital errors throughout the encounter in Sydney. However, New Zealand were back to their best in the Bledisloe Cup decider a week later as they held Australia to no score, in their 36-0 thrashing. This is also an All Blacks side that struggled to a four-point, 16-20 victory over an eleventh-placed Argentina side.
However, despite showing a number of relatively inconsistent performances in 2019, the All Blacks ended their World Cup preparations by romping home to a 14-try, 92-7 victory over Tonga two weeks before the start of their World Title defence. This performance against the relatively weak Tongan side was both clinical and dominant; reminiscent of the All Blacks of 2016.
New Zealand always bring their best to the World Cup, and will always be favourites to win the showcase, regardless of their performances leading up to it. However, it has been a number of years since New Zealand have lost two matches within a twelve-month period. It has also been some time since a World Cup has looked as wide open as it does in 2019.
With all-star players such as Kieran Read, Ben Smith and Bauden Barrett likely to put up some of the best performances in the World Cup, a final involving the defending champions is still highly likely. With the current form of both the Springboks and the All Blacks, their opening round encounter could suggest who will be lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy at the end of the tournament. In fact, the World Cup Final could very easily be contested between the two arch rivals. Even with some visible chinks in their armour, the All Blacks will still be one of the favourites at the end of the tournament.