In less than a month we will enter a new calendar year, where one of the most exciting rugby seasons in history awaits us. And a critical time of judgement will arrive for the All Blacks. The world’s number one ranked rugby team will attempt to break what is regarded in many quarters as arguably sport’s greatest title drought.
Few, if any, teams over history have dominated their sport as New Zealand has, especially since the first World Cup in 1987.
From 1988 to the present day, an era which has been unfairly dominated by obsession over the quadrennial global tournament, the All Blacks have won precisely 80 percent of their 240 test matches played (192 wins, four draws).
Yet have won only one World Cup, while two time winners the Wallabies have won 64.2 percent of their 248 test matches played (160 wins, five draws) and fellow two time champion’s the Springboks 62.8 percent of their 223 tests (140 wins, four draws).
England, who has won one World Cup, and France, the strongest nation to not lift the William Webb Ellis trophy, are almost identical, having won 63.4 and 63.3 percent of their tests played over a 22 year period.
All these statistics, pending on your interests, either make for fascinating reading or numerical irrelevance.
It is important to also consider that the All Blacks build almost unstoppable momentum leading into World Cups, winning 38 of 43 tests leading into the last tournament in France, and currently sitting on a compelling ledger of 36 of 43 tests coming into 2011.
This all proves that little counts except for the tournament itself.
The All Blacks have established all the necessary parameters coming into next year’s World Cup, realistically at a level far beyond any other time they have entered the four yearly championship.
They have the best winning record, the most complete game and the best squad.
They also tick all the boxes of what has historically been required to win a World Cup. Multiple world class players (especially a captain and flyhalf), a team dripping with test experience (the All Blacks last starting XV contained 690 caps) and excellent defence while boasting as the most formidable attack in the world.
The All Blacks led the 2010 figures with 59 tries scored and 22 conceded.
While some feel the Wallabies backline and offensive systems may be superior to New Zealand, they scored 10 less tries this year while playing an additional test match.
All of this ultimately will satisfy two parties.
The bookmakers who will not need to scratch their heads to come up with a short priced favourite to win the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and the detractors who can mock that the All Blacks have been in this position before, and ultimately fallen short.
It has come down to one game, where the All Blacks have lost.
Have they choked?
No, as that is an insult to Les Bleus, Wallaby and South African teams who have managed to do what many thought impossible, defeating an All Blacks team that has really only been a dominant favourite in 2007, not in 2003 and 1999 (England deserved that tag seven years ago and the Wallabies inflicted New Zealand’s worst ever test defeat leading into the fourth World Cup).
The issue for the All Blacks is that it has been difficult to prepare for a tournament that is split into two vastly different stages.
Pool play is a phase where a team can afford to lose a match, and the All Blacks consistently canter throughout this stage—being the only nation never to lose a pool match in World Cup history—which has never prepared them for the second stage.
This fact provides little comfort to a nation that has only won one World Cup in six tries.
Equally the All Blacks boast a winning legacy that could also detriment their mindset approaching sudden death rugby, as they are ultimately measured by their overall test record.
As terrible as a World Cup defeat is for the All Blacks, the reality is that any test loss for New Zealand is considered a mini-crisis for a nation that has suffered only 101 test reverses in 107 years.
The All Blacks approach every test as if it is in essence an elimination match.
But they are unique in this capacity, with all other coaches often asking to only be judged on World Cup success, with the latest being Robbie Deans, who said that recent Wallaby losses were only part of a journey, and that he was contracted to win the World Cup.
Indeed, other nations approach the second stage of the World Cup with such intensity that as has been the case in recent tournaments, the All Blacks once every four years come across an opponent that brings as much desire to win as they do in every match.
Approaching the finals or second stage of the World Cup requires not only this mindset, but an element of preparation that needs to be found in the pool stages.
In 2007, the All Blacks in four tests scored 309 points and conceded 35 to have a point’s difference 100 points better than any other team. In 2003 it was a one sided 282-57 ledger.
Coupled with all the above facts, these horrendously one sided encounters have meant that the All Blacks have approach the finals with no match hardening, whereas their opponents have.
France, New Zealand’s conquerors in 2007 and 1999, were beaten by Argentina in pool play leading up to their quarter final success against the All Blacks in the last tournament. 11 years ago Les Bleus were given huge frights by Canada (33-20) and Fiji (28-19) prior to the shock win against New Zealand in the semi finals.
The Wallabies in 2003, who had conceded 50 points against the All Blacks earlier in the year, beat New Zealand in that year’s Cup semifinal thanks to playing a pseudo final against Ireland in pool stages, with the hosts winning 17-16 against the Emerald Isle.
This is where 2011 presents a unique advantage for the All Blacks.
For they will cross paths with Les Bleus, twice their World Cup bete noire, in the pool stages.
It is for all intensive purposes the strongest pool opponent the All Blacks have ever faced.
French form leading into this encounter will be all but irrelevant, as the most inconsistent team in world rugby has proven they can lift every four years regardless of recent form.
The All Blacks will play Tonga and Japan in pool stages at the 2011 Rugby World Cup before facing the French, while Les Bleus will play Japan and Canada. The tournament hosts will have played the Wallabies two weeks before the Cup starts, while France will play Ireland home and away in the month prior to the beginning of their campaign.
This fact alone means that the All Blacks will be better placed to break their World Cup drought than ever before.