The All Blacks line-up for the Rugby World Cup 2019 has been named and it wasn't much of a surprise, writes Jeremy Taylor. With “an obsessive’s eye and wild speculation”, he weighs in on Rugby World Cups past – and imminent.
Their spots are filled by Chiefs loosehead prop Atu Moli and flanker Luke Jacobson.
As expected, they have gone with four locks to cover Brodie Retallick's injury recovery – he is expected to be fit by the quarterfinals, while midfielder Ryan Crotty also makes the trip after recovering from a broken thumb.
The hardest done by is possibly second five-eighth Ngani Laumape, but I would suspect he may still get the call-up if any of the four chosen midfielders are injured.
It is a squad geared towards speed and utility.
Since then, there have been moments when those passions have flared: the time when Ma’a Nonu turned up when I was meeting my musical hero (Johnny Marr of the Smiths), and I felt very conflicted; the time when I met a friend’s mum’s new husband at a wedding who was “very interested in rugby”, and I talked so intensely at him that he slunk off and avoided me for the rest of the night; the uncharacteristically understated way I shook Wayne Smith’s hand at a Wellington traffic light and thanked him for his role in the 2015 World Cup triumph; and the time just a few weeks ago when I met Australian-based, New Zealand-reared rugby oracle Spiro Zavos and (mostly) kept it together.
I can recall just a little of that inaugural tournament, here in New Zealand in 1987 (which we won), and not very much at all of the subsequent event in 1991 (which we did not). I have distinct memories of the 1995 World Cup, when the All Blacks lost to the Nelson Mandela-inspired Springboks (seemingly just so Hollywood could make a terrible movie, Invictus, about it, with the tiny Matt Damon playing hulking Boks skipper Francois Pienaar. The rugby scenes in it are so dreadful they make me wince, and there is no mention whatsoever of the All Blacks food-poisoning scandal). I also remember watching the All Blacks lose the 1999 semifinal at Twickenham to the French, over a game of Monopoly in a living room in Finsbury Park, North London. Meh, pass the salty beer nuts.
By 2003, though, I was back in New Zealand and living in Wellington, where the oval-ball code seemed to be something virtually everyone took an interest in. Future All Black greats, including Nonu, Piri Weepu, Rodney So’oialo and Jerry Collins (RIP), were all regular fixtures in and around Cuba St, and with the World Cup taking place in Australia (after New Zealand had blown co-hosting rights by failing to guarantee “clean”, ad-free stadiums), I was all in. I vividly recollect watching the All Blacks, basically unbackable favourites, fall behind the Wallabies in the semi-final after an early Stirling Mortlock intercept try, and then sink further and further into the mire. “Four more years, boys,” crowed Wallabies halfback George Gregan. “Four more years...” I was almost pleased when they lost the final, even if it was to England.
Then there was France 2007, where the All Blacks were even bigger favourites but wound up crashing out even sooner than in 2003, in a quarterfinal against the hosts, wearing those dismal grey jerseys – and in Cardiff, of all bloody places. The French had lost their opening match against Argentina; Wayne Barnes, the English referee for the quarterfinal, was a boy on a man’s errand, getting redder and redder faced, and failing to call a blatant forward pass that ended up being the winning of the match. Not to mention the All Blacks’ utter refusal/inability to take a drop goal that could have snatched victory.
There were recriminations, there were tears, there was much gnashing of teeth – and not just from me. There was an inquiry, and a largely unreadable (unread?) report. What there still wasn’t, however, was a little gold cup in the New Zealand Rugby Union’s cabinet that held all the other trophies on offer: the Bledisloe Cup, the Freedom Cup and the Dave Gallaher Trophy; numerous Tri Nations and Rugby Championship titles – none could hold a candle to the Webb Ellis Cup, that symbol of global rugby supremacy that New Zealand had not won for 20 years. Its absence had become a national, and personal, obsession.
A passionate bid from New Zealand Rugby Union chair Jock Hobbs, supported by then PM Helen Clark and All Blacks legends Tana Umaga and Colin Meads, was enough to secure cup hosting rights in 2011 – maybe we could win another one at home? After all, we did have the older, wiser heads of two of the greatest ever to play the game in Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, both battle-scarred veteran survivors of that harrowing 2007 quarterfinal loss.
What we, the rugby-loving public, did not know was that McCaw was essentially playing on one foot. We were assured he was merely “sitting out” some of the pool play as a “precaution”. But when Carter collapsed at training while running some regulation goal-kicking drills the day before he was to captain the side in a pool game against Japan, it was as though the rug had been pulled from under us. Fortunately, portly Weepu became an unlikely hero, hauling our sorry arses through the quarterfinal against Argentina, and inspiring a semifinal win over Australia (and the great unravelling of cartoon villain Wallabies first five-eighths Quade Cooper). It was almost a formality that we would thump the French in the final, right? Right?!
Ahh, sacré bleu. Amidst accusations of eye-gouging (Aurélien Rougerie – I have not forgotten you, pal) and McCaw battling through the agony of a broken foot, with a try scored by prop Tony Woodcock and a wobbly old penalty kick from our fourth-choice first five (the universally derided – at that stage, quite rightly – Stephen Donald), the trophy was finally back where it belonged, after a 24-year wait and utterly torturous 8-7 win.
After this gruelling slog, the comparative ease with which the 2015 tournament was won was almost anticlimactic – the All Blacks went in as the world’s best side, proved it beyond any doubt, and came home with the spoils. They had the best players in almost every position, and depth to cover should misfortune have befallen them. Which it largely did not.
They laid the ghost of Cardiff 2007 to rest with an imperious nine-try, 62-13 rout of the French in a quarterfinal in that self-same venue. Dan Carter’s dinged-up frame held together just long enough for his experience and tactical savvy to guide the team through a hard-fought semifinal battle with the Springboks (which I never really thought they were going to lose). Then he steered the All Blacks home in the final against the Wallabies with a monster penalty and a drop goal when they had started to veer just a little off course, and a right-footed conversion on the final whistle. A fairy-tale ending, at last, after the grim realism of so many earlier campaigns.
Here is an unpopular, but fairly self-evident truth: the All Blacks side of 2019 is probably not going to be as good as the side that won in 2015. For starters, the twin towers of excellence that were Dan Carter and Richie McCaw are gone, daddy, gone. This is not to say the likes of Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are not wonderful players – skilful, brave, exciting and capable of miraculous, match-altering plays that define the game at this level, when the stakes are this high. But they are not Carter and McCaw, probably the greatest-ever players in their respective positions.
Similarly, we lack the perfect yin/yang of the Ma’a Nonu-Conrad Smith midfield that served us so well in those consecutive cup victories; their skill sets complementary, their play-making telepathy honed by playing together for the Hurricanes as well as the All Blacks. If anything, there is almost an embarrassment of riches in many of the key positions – but not those clear best combinations. The closest we have this time round is probably Crusaders duo Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue, but there is a nagging suspicion that this rock-solid pairing lacks the game-breaking ability the likes of Sonny Bill Williams bring.
It’s a concern that so many of the senior players are in their twilight years. Skipper Kieran Read will turn 34 during the tournament, the same age as Sonny Bill – which is pretty old when you do what these guys do. Dane Coles, 32, Sam Whitelock, 30, Ben Smith, 33, Ryan Crotty, 30… tick, tick, tick.
It is hard to say what sort of form the likes of Coles, Ben Smith, and Brodie Retallick (presuming he recovers from his dislocated shoulder) will actually bring into the tournament, having played so little during the Super Rugby season. It’s difficult to say whether their injuries have actually been all that serious, or whether they were simply having their powder kept dry. With a guy like McCaw, you always felt he could come in stone cold and still play the house down, but some of these guys may just be a little underdone.
What value to place on Super Rugby form, anyhow? There are plenty of players (pre-2015 Ma’a Nonu being the obvious example) who can have a lousy domestic season and then carve it up for the national team. Should we read much significance into the dominance of the Crusaders and Hurricanes this year, or that all the New Zealand franchises (aside from the Blues) made the Super Rugby playoffs? I’m not sure you can. While there may be some correlation between form at this level and in a World Cup, to extrapolate that one leads to the other is to draw a pretty long bow. (The Bulls, in 2007, may be the only team where Super Rugby victory was the springboard to a World Cup win, by the Springboks that year).
It also fails to take into account perhaps the biggest sea change since the last World Cup: the rise and rise of the North. In 2015, hosts England failed (through a combination of poor selections and decision-making, and downright hubris) even to make it out of their pool, and the semifinals were an all-southern hemisphere affair (NZ v South Africa, Australia v Argentina). The current World Rugby rankings have Wales at number one, followed by New Zealand, England in third, then Ireland and South Africa in fourth and fifth, respectively.
I reckon this is down to a few key factors: first, the North is now profiting immensely from the coaching nous of Australasian coaches such as Warren Gatland (Wales, British and Irish Lions), Eddie Jones (England) and Joe Schmidt (Ireland), and the huge investment and resources the wealthy northern unions are able to throw at their teams.
They are also benefiting from having consistently strong opposition, with only Italy failing to offer much of a threat in the Six Nations, whereas the All Blacks have suffered from their chief opponents – South Africa and especially Australia – being in a state of flux. Indeed, who knows what sort of condition the Wallabies may be in by cup time, with just one of their sides making the Super Rugby playoffs, and the fallout from the Israel Folau debacle still looming large? It is entirely possible they may not make it out of a pool that also features Wales and an improved Fiji.
In my book The Last Word: Rugby World Cup 2015, I speculated that Ireland might be ready to perform on the grandest stages. Regrettably, my prediction was a year or two premature. But in 2016, they defeated an (admittedly under-strength) All Blacks side 40-29 in Chicago, and in 2018 managed a magnificent 16-9 win in Dublin – even keeping the All Blacks tryless, as the British and Irish Lions had done in wining 24-21 in Wellington in 2017. My suspicion is that Ireland and, in particular, playmaker Johnny Sexton, peaked with that performance, and this tournament could be a bridge too far for Joe Schmidt’s side, as was this year’s Six Nations. The team have also lost to injury their two best openside flankers, Séan O’Brien and Dan Leavy.
England will be a threat, and should top Pool C ahead of France and Argentina (who may, however, gain confidence from the Jaguares making the Super Rugby final). Their Australian coach, Eddie Jones, is certainly a canny operator, helping mastermind the Springboks’ triumph in 2007, and, perhaps even more impressively, Japan’s pool-play win over the Boks in 2015. He is one of the game’s great thinkers and tacticians, and he is also adept at augmenting his own skills with those of others. Former All Blacks head coach John Mitchell has turned out to be an astute appointment as a defence coach; that England all but beat the All Blacks at the end of 2018 is testimony to his coaching chops.
Wales have risen to first in the world rankings, and won the 2019 Six Nations; perhaps this will be the year they go further than the semifinal they reached in 2011? Somehow, I just can’t see it. I think they are vulnerable to injuries and that a lack of depth beyond their top team may stifle their ambitions; there are reasons guys like Hadleigh Parkes and Gareth Anscombe, heroes in their adopted country, never became All Blacks here at home.
Write off the French at your peril – predictable in their unpredictability, “you never know which French team will turn up”. Blah, blah, blah... They might beat, or lose to, almost any team in the tournament, and while they are on a steady path of improvement under coach Jacques Brunel, this year’s tournament will likely come too soon for them.
Certainly the biggest match of the pool stages will be between the All Blacks and the Springboks, with poolmates Italy, Namibia and Canada unlikely to much trouble either side. The loser (and the All Blacks have never lost an RWC pool game) will face the winner of group A, most likely Ireland, in another huge game. The Boks, too, have shown considerable improvement under their hugely likeable and capable coach, Rassie Erasmus, as evidenced by their win in Wellington last year, and that frustrating draw in this year’s corresponding fixture. They have a handful of players you would likely pick for any World XV: hooker Malcolm Marx, lock Eben Etzebeth, and their inspirational skipper/flanker Siya Kolisi are all utterly world class. They also feature a host of up-and-comers of outstanding potential: halfback Herschel Jantjies and wing Aphiwe Dyantyi are just two who have the raw talent and blistering pace to really light up the tournament.
I think the Wallabies will struggle – the game has not been in a good place in the Lucky Country for some time, and their performances under hotheaded coach Michael Cheika have gotten steadily worse. Can you imagine a New Zealand coach surviving having won just three of 10 games in 2018? The Israel Folau saga has been hugely disruptive, but could have a unifying effect on the remaining players. Backline utility Kurtley Beale seems to have improved in his absence and in Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda, they may have discovered some big men to power their engine room, and compete with the hard-nosed likes of England’s Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes or the All Blacks’ Sam Whitelock and Retallick.
So, what chance the All Blacks “three-peat”, realistically? Well, you would have to say it will be substantially higher if they’re able to get their best players on the field – especially the likes of Retallick, worryingly injured in the Wellington Boks test. He has been favourably compared to the great Colin Meads. Such is his work rate and physicality, there is a significant drop-off in quality to the next tier of players. Everything will be done to have him on the field come the playoff games. Skipper Kieran Read’s ability to stay fit and focused on leading the team will also be crucial. His legacy as an All Blacks great is at stake here; in the past couple of seasons, it would appear he has been keeping his starting role at the back of the scrum more for his leadership than for his individual performance.
The selectors will also likely pick a “wildcard” player – someone who opposition defences haven’t been able to pull to pieces with video analysis. In 2015, they took Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder, and it was the diminutive Milner-Skudder who wound up being their point of difference with his fancy footwork, as opposed to the power athletes employed by most other teams; he scored the opening try in the final right on the half-time hooter. This year, they will go with at least one of the Crusaders’ form players – George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Braydon Ennor – to fulfil this role, although the likelihood of any of them being selected to start ahead of the world’s best winger, Rieko Ioane, seems slight. This tournament would be the perfect showcase for Ioane, still just 22, to show just how devastating his mix of size, strength and speed can be – expect him to lift his game dramatically from a curiously lacklustre performance in Wellington.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this year’s tournament – aside from the fact that it takes place in Japan (it will run seamlessly, just like the Japanese Shinkansen rail network, the stadiums will be magnificent, the food will be great, and the Japanese people will support it enthusiastically) – is that New Zealand start as just one of the sides who might well win it.
With the desperation of 2011 followed by the sturdy, well-constructed victory of 2015, I’m looking forward to supporting the All Blacks in their quest, without the crushing weight of expectation bearing down.
Pressed for an answer as to who I think will triumph, I guess I wouldn’t consider it impossible that the All Blacks and Springboks may meet for a third time this year, and that the outcome could come down to the bounce of the ball, to shots at goal and tackles missed or made. The margins for error will be minuscule.
All Blacks squad for the RWC
The 31-strong squad is as follows (with age, Super Rugby team, province and Test caps):
Dane Coles (32, Hurricanes / Wellington, 64)
Liam Coltman (29, Highlanders / Otago, 5)
Codie Taylor (28, Crusaders / Canterbury, 44)
Nepo Laulala (27, Chiefs / Counties Manukau, 19)
Joe Moody (30, Crusaders /Canterbury, 40)
Atu Moli (24, Chiefs / Tasman, 2)
Angus Ta'avao (29, Chiefs / Taranaki, 7)
Ofa Tuungafasi (27, Blues / Auckland, 29)
Scott Barrett (25, Crusaders / Taranaki, 30)
Brodie Retallick (28, Chiefs / Hawke's Bay, 77)
Patrick Tuipulotu (26, Blues / Auckland, 24)
Samuel Whitelock (30, Crusaders / Canterbury, 111)
Sam Cane (27, Chiefs / Bay of Plenty, 63)
Luke Jacobson (22, Chiefs / Waikato, 1)
Kieran Read (33, Crusaders / Counties Manukau, 121) - Captain
Ardie Savea (25, Hurricanes / Wellington, 38)
Matt Todd (31, Crusaders / Canterbury, 20)
TJ Perenara (27, Hurricanes / Wellington, 58)
Aaron Smith (30, Highlanders / Manawatu, 86)
Brad Weber (28, Chiefs / Hawke's Bay, 2)
Beauden Barrett (28, Blues / Taranaki, 77)
Richie Mo'unga (25, Crusaders / Canterbury, 12)
Ryan Crotty (30, Crusaders / Canterbury, 44)
Jack Goodhue (24, Crusaders / Northland, 9)
Anton Lienert-Brown (24, Chiefs / Waikato, 37)
Sonny Bill Williams (33, Blues / Counties Manukau, 53)
Jordie Barrett (22, Hurricanes / Taranaki, 11)
George Bridge (24, Crusaders / Canterbury, 4)
Rieko Ioane (22, Blues / Auckland, 26)
Sevu Reece (22, Crusaders / Waikato, 2)
Ben Smith (33, Highlanders /Otago, 79)
The squad features 17 forwards and 14 backs with the following positional breakdown: three hookers, five props, four locks, five loose forwards, three halfbacks, two first five-eighths, four midfielders and five outside backs.
The All Blacks will again be captained by Kieran Read, who will be taking part in his third Rugby World Cup, together with lock Samuel Whitelock and midfielder Sonny Bill Williams. Nine players will be going to their second Tournament, while 19 are going to their first.
Rugby World Cup 2019 opens with hosts Japan playing Russia on 20 September, then the All Blacks’ opening match against South Africa the following day.
The final is on 2 November.
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South.