Ahead of the All Blacks first game Trevor McKewen makes some fanciful, fraught and hopefully on-point predictions for the Rugby World Cup.
Can you take one for the team? Could you cope with the All Blacks coming up short in achieving an unprecedented third straight World Cup if it was for the greater good of the game around the globe?
Let’s ponder that thought for a moment.
Nope? Didn’t think so. Me neither.
The thought of a gloating England lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy (especially after the cricket) is, quite frankly, unpalatable. Same with Wales or Australia, although I admit that’s based more on a dislike for their current national coaches who remain unnecessarily prickly and carry persecution complexes almost as a badge of honour (in contrast I quite like Eddie Jones, and Joe Schmidt strikes me as very even-handed).
I could cope if the All Blacks don’t win the tournament if I thought it was genuinely for the greater good of either rugby or humanity. After all, isn’t that how many of us coped when a Nelson Mandela-inspired South African won in 1995? But no such inspiring narrative sits on any of the teams assembled in Japan, including the host nation.
There’s an argument that it’s not World Rugby’s fault, of course. The game was long ago hijacked by the self-interest of European clubs, the Home Unions, and even our own mob at NZ Rugby. The International Rugby Board, as it was then, had its chance to stop rugby becoming soccer (translation: a club-dominated global game where every international between World Cup cycles is effectively a “friendly”) but didn’t.
Now we’re stuck with what we have: a world body that’s almost entirely impotent. And a win by the likes of England, Wales or Ireland is only going to make matters worse.
Should England, for example, win, the game in the UK will get a massive shot in the arm – but it will be the club scene that will benefit the most from increased media attention, given that the national team can only play so many tests per year.
That will mean more imported Fijian wingers, Samoan midfielders and Tongan brothers wearing white jerseys with a rose on them rather than the white, red and blue of their native countries. It will also mean they’ll be paid by clubs in France and the UK not to make themselves available to play for an Islands team at a World Cup.
Now before you say New Zealand is as guilty as other countries of plundering the islands for our own benefit, I agree. But there are degrees of culpability. When it comes to killing South Pacific rugby, New Zealand Rugby is guilty of sloppy manslaughter at best whereas some in the north resemble Ted Bundy.
The self-interest of the European Home Unions (and fear of the Celts in particular that they might slip into a relegation zone if the Pacific Nations gained their players back) successfully saw off World Rugby’s merited Nations League concept.
So I say bugger the English, the French and the rest. The All Blacks winning this World Cup is the lesser of many evils.
Lift it high, Kieran.
In the meantime, here’s some All Black-coloured predictions of what we might see over the next 44 days – some fanciful, some fraught and some, hopefully, on the money.
The secret is in the skipper
I have a theory…
Only seven men have lifted the William Webb Ellis Trophy as captain on the winner’s podium. And all seven are legends of the game. Somehow the Cup doesn’t look the same alongside a nobody.
David Kirk, Nick Farr-Jones, Francois Pienaar, John Eales, Martin Johnson, John Smit and Richie McCaw (twice). They’re all household global names who invoke respect and awe. I suspect whoever lifts Bill on November 2 at Yokohama’s International Stadium will be no different.
Kieran Read, World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2013, a test centurion and winner of four Super Rugby titles, fits that bill. More importantly, he has regained his playing mojo in the past month or more.
The likes of Siya Kolisi (South Africa), Owen Farrell (England) and Michael Hooper (Wallabies) don’t fit that honour wall at this stage of their careers, or on prior feats, and would need to be among the top two or three performers at the entire tournament to secure that rarefied status.
Advantage All Blacks (but watch out for Rory Best of Ireland and Welshman Alun Wyn Jones who are both cut from the same cloth as many of the previous World Cup-winning skippers).
The Player of the Tournament matters
It always helps your cause if you have two or three players who, even before a ball is kicked, are clearly in the running to be the best player on show.
There’s some smart money on this being Ardie Sava. And quite frankly, that’s smart. But for his recent injury, Brodie Retallick would be in the same conversation (and may still be). Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga too. And possibly Aaron Smith.
But Savea is a rare bird, the most exciting, dynamic and versatile All Black forward since Michael Jones. Things seem written in the stars for the personable Savea. This could be his time.
An outsider from the rest?
Manu Tuilagi terrorised Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu when the English last beat us, way back in 2012. He’s done nothing since… until this northern season where he has suddenly turned into Superman again. The blockbusting midfielder is potential kryptonite to New Zealand.
Take the weather with you
So who was the bright spark who scheduled the World Cup for this time of the year in Japan? Even a cursory search of the web reveals September and October to be less than settled weather-wise. In fact, it’s the typhoon season. You had one job, buddy.
At some stage, it seems a given at least one key match will be wiped out by torrential rain and wind, be deemed a draw and have a profound impact on who faces who in the quarter-finals.
I won’t even begin to bore you with the various scenarios. But expect some very shitty coaches if the weather gods deal to them.
Young legs will win the day
It is noticeable that the national coach of every major contender has controversially left a veteran performer out of his World Cup squad. Think Steve Hansen and Owen Franks, Eddie Jones and Dylan Hartley and Danny Care, Joe Schmidt and Devon Toner.
They’ve also taken unexpected punts on at least one bolter. Think Hansen and (till he was injured) Luke Jacobsen, Michael Cheika and teenager Jordan Petaia.
In the case of injecting fresh legs, Hansen unexpectedly widened his approach with the surprise selections of wing duo George Bridge and Sevu Reece.
It seems to be a nod to Japan’s humidity and a slight tilting back of the test game towards attacking skill-sets. All of the name coaches seem to agree. But Hansen has the superior cattle and that should be of comfort to All Blacks fans.
Who can trip us up?
My own personal test around this relates to the cymbals test: Who is the opponent that most makes your knees knock the most when they face us?
For me, it’s England. They are the one side who can slow down a critical game, control the tempo, suffocate and frustrate the All Blacks, along the way accumulating points by stealth and increasing panic in the opposition. God forbid.
Will it be a spectacle?
By rights, the first World Cup ever to be held in Asia should be a mighty spectacle. Holding it in Japan, a year out from most of the Olympics, is a monumental opportunity for the game.
What could ruin it? Chances are, the referees are a greater threat than the weather. This is particularly so in the tackling area. I have this foreboding feeling the whistle-blowers will be involved in more than just the odd card controversy on marginal tackling calls that then have a profound influence on the match outcome.
The glass half-full view? That sweeping attacking rugby prevails on dry fields. That the refs will swallow their whistles.
That Fiji, the best prepared and best coached of the South Pacific Island nations, reach the knockout stages of the tournament and stick it up the toffy-nosed northerners. And if they don’t, let’s hope Japan does.
That anybody other than England wins.
That the All Blacks go three-in-a-row with an inspired game plan that finally unlocks the rush defence the British and Irish Lions introduced here two years ago and the South Africans now have down to a fine art.
Cheers and now bring it on please.
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