World Cup Preview: New Zealand

Group A Opposition: France, Tonga, Japan, Canada

Pedigree: Won first time out at home in 87, but didn’t win in 95, 03 and 07 despite being the best team in the tournament. Not good enough. Repeated buckling under pressure has meant its squeaky-bum time already in NZ – the latest worry is that the Crusaders only got all the way to the final of the Super XV despite playing no home games, but didn’t win. Panic stations!

Players to watch: Were do we start? The best scrum in rugby, the most exciting young lock in the world (Sam Whitelock), a frenetic back row including a man who is allowed to enter rucks from anywhere (all joking aside, McCaw plays the referee better than any other captain around), the best outhalf in history, three outstanding centres, and strike backs so good Dougie Howlett wouldn’t get near the team. We’ll be leaning back and appreciating the brilliance of Dan Carter, the insouciant genius of SBW, and young Israel Dagg – a potential superstar.

Good Tournament: They must win every match, preferably with lots of tries. No pressure then.

Bad Tournament: With the way they have been playing, not winning the tournament would constitute an absolute disaster.

Prospects: Since 1995, they have specialized in peaking between tournaments. After 2007, they took a deep breath, sent apparent heir-apparent Robbie Deans to the then hapless Wallabies and persevered with Smiler Henry. Luckily, he has raised them to even greater heights, helped by a production line of simply fantastic players. Post-2009 rule changes have played right into their hands, and with a team full of brilliant support runners and intelligent footballers, they have only been beaten once since June 2009, and that was a perfect storm of Aussie brilliance and Stephen Donald (since banished for his crimes) ineptitude.

Writing pre-Tri-Nations, there is ample opportunity for us to look foolish, but we can’t see them losing another match this year. The pressure is becoming unbearable, but the last 4 years has been all about building a team so good that, even if they choke, they will win anyway. The focus, intensity and hunger of this team are top notch, and the age profile looks ideal.

We foresee 4 wins in the group stages by 40+ points (including over a French B team wearing an ill-conceived NZ-goading shirt), a quarter-final stroll over Argentina or Scotland, a swatting aside of the Boks or Ireland in the semis then finally getting a game in the final, but still overcoming the Wallabies by 15 points or so. The fact they are still close to even money is a reflection of the choke premium, but at home, they aren’t going to come close to losing a match. Richie doesn’t even need to commit breakdown murder for them to stroll home. But he will anyway.

Verdict: Champions at last.


Super Rugby … showtime

After a ludicrously-conference-based season (4 bonus points for having a week off?) with an NFL style random fixture computer, SANZAR got what they wanted: 2 teams from each country in the play-offs, and the best 6 teams in the competition. The haplessness of the Lions wasn’t their fault, the expansion Rebels were always fun, and the what-will-we-do-with-Argentina question was punted into touch for another few years.

And now it’s even better – the teams which made up the top 4 since Easter are in the semi-finals. All Northern Hemisphere fans should look forward to this – the skill levels and intensity won’t be matched in many games this season.

Egg Chasers young brother (Óg Chaser?) went to Rebels-Reds in Melbourne a few weeks back, and he said the most notable thing about the match was no-one, including Quade Cooper, knew what Quade Cooper was going to do next. Except the Reds outside backs. That kind of unpredictablility is very hard to maintain a defensive line against for 80 minutes, and offers the Reds (and the Wallabies) huge attacking possibilities.

The Blues only lost by 6 when they came to Suncorp at the beginning of May, 2 games into a 4 game losing streak, which they arrested with 2 scratchy wins, including against the injury-stricken Waratahs last weekend. They have been consistently inconsistent this year, and we would be pretty surprised if they held out a Reds side that has the look of a team on a mission.

In the other semi-final, there is another team on a mission. The Crusaders have not played at home at all this season due to the Christchurch earthquake, and apparently the longest time they have spent in one place since February is 8 days. And yet they keep on winning. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter will start, and rumour has it the South African officials will let Carter be tackled. The Stormers won the South African conference on the back of a mean defence, but never quite convinced in attack – they were out-scored by all the other South African teams, except the Lions.

One of the side-stories around this game (at least up here) is the presence of Saracens’ hooker Schalk Brits on the Stormers bench. Brits is great fun, but you have to ask why the only fallback they have in the probablity/event of McCaw and Kieran Read making hay at the breakdown is a hooker just off the plane? We fancied the Stormers before the play-offs began, but are edging towards the Crusaders now…