Roundtable: Rugby World Cup 2019 - How are the All Blacks shaping up?

  • 20/09/2018

Thursday marks precisely 365 days until the All Blacks begin their campaign to become the first country to ever win three consecutive Rugby World Cups.

Let's take a look at some of the more pressing questions as we look ahead to Japan.

Which team shapes as the biggest hurdle for the All Blacks to three-peat?

John Day (Sports reporter): Themselves.  As we saw in Wellington against the Boks, under pressure the All Blacks can be their own worst enemies and need to come up with the right decisions when it matters.

Grant Chapman (Online sports editor): Granted, you never quite know what version of the French team you'll encounter on any given day - but that's part of the intrigue around our old foes.

They were the team we beat in two World Cup finals - they've obviously broken our hearts on a couple of other occasions.

At the last World Cup, we absolutely snotted them in the quarter-finals to lay some of those ghosts to rest.

But even their below-strength June tour party didn't look that bad, despite losing all three tests to the All Blacks. You could argue they were unlucky (or screwed by the rules) in two of those defeats.

Anytime I see France looming ahead of the All Blacks in a World Cup draw, I get nervous.

Randall Munro (Sports producer): Ireland are ranked world number two for a reason. The likes of Tadgh Furlong, Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have tasted success against the All Blacks wearing both green and red. With Joe Schmidt's men on the opposite side of the draw, the two are on a collision course for the final.

Although, that would require Ireland getting past the quarterfinals for the first time ever.

Andrew Gourdie (Sports reporter/presenter):  It has to be Ireland. Clearly the best of the Northern Hemisphere challengers at the moment, winning five out of five to be crowned Six Nations champions earlier this year. That included a stunning late win over France in Paris where they found themselves down 13-12 in the closing minutes of the game, before completing 41 phases to set up Johnny Sexton to nail a 45-metre drop goal to win the match 15-13. 

This team has the ability to overcome adversity and show composure in the clutch moments. They won't have forgotten that win over the All Blacks in Chicago either. Joe Schmidt's men look sharp.  

Henry Rounce (Sports reporter): It's tempting to suggest South Africa, or Northern Hemisphere heavyweights like Ireland or England. Yet the biggest hurdle for the All Blacks is themselves. If they play to their potential, no one can stop them.

Six Nations champs Ireland will be hoping for more scenes like this in Japan.
Six Nations champs Ireland will be hoping for more scenes like this in Japan. Photo credit: Getty

Who are the key players for All Blacks?

Day: Brodie Retallick is the All Blacks' talisman. The general formula is -  he plays, they win.  Ben Smith is the other key player for me.  When the All Blacks form like Voltron, he's the head and has to be wearing the 15 jersey.

Chapman: You could have any number of players here - Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett, Kieran Read, even Dane Coles.

But Smith seems to be the glue to the back-line and somewhat wasted on the wing, where he's shunted whenever the Three Wise Men decided to give Jordie Barrett a run at the back.

These All Blacks seem to go better when Smith is in the 15 jersey and we have others who can freeze their butts off on the flanks.

Of course, if Beauden's goal-kicking reaches crisis point and Jordie looms as the solution, Smith may end up permanently out of position.

Munro: You only need to look at who's not been on the park when the All Blacks have lost in recent seasons to find the answer. Brodie Retallick was sidelined for three of their last four losses. He's central to all the All Blacks do. When he's not there, Steve Hansen's game plan fails to fire.

Gourdie: Brodie Retallick and Ben Smith. Retallick is a freak, plain and simple. He has been everywhere for the All Blacks this year, and was sorely missed against the Springboks in Wellington. 

Ben Smith is just so damn reliable. For all the depth in the All Blacks' outside backs department, his presence is vital for making it all click. 

Rounce: Codie Taylor, Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith. Taylor has quickly developed into an exceptional talent, taking the skills of Dane Coles and adding his own spin on them. Retallick has the engine to play three World Cups in three days, while Smith is an absolute genius, even when he's positionally shifted around the backline like a hot potato.  

Which team is the biggest dark horse?

Day: Ireland have never reached a World Cup semi-final let alone looked like winning the tournament before, but are primed for an historic result in 2019.  Can the world's second ranked team be a dark horse?

Chapman:  For a few years, Argentina have been regarded as something of a failed Sanzar experiment, a little like Italy in the Six Nations.

But with the Jaguares qualifying for their first Super Rugby playoffs, and the Pumas securing Rugby Championship wins over South Africa (home) and Australia (away), the national side may not be that far off making a real impact on the world stage.

They've shown glimpses in the past - third (ahead of the All Blacks) in 2007 and fourth last time out. They're unfashionable, but promising.

Munro: Los Pumas will open the doors to European-based players for the Rugby World Cup. The idea of adding Juan Imhoff, Facundo Isa and Juan Figallo to Mario Ledesma's re-born team is a scary proposition. Australia, Wales and Fiji beware of the Georgians, too - Pool D could be mayhem. 

Gourdie: Easy to say South Africa after their display in Wellington, and their opening match of the World Cup against the All Blacks will be a cracker. 

I see Argentina as the dark horse. They seem to be one of those teams who may not win the World Cup, but could tip up any opponent on their day if it all clicks. In that regard, they may be the most dangerous and unpredictable opponent the All Blacks could encounter in Japan. 

Rounce: Argentina. Wins against the Springboks and Australia show they have what it takes against the big teams, while they pushed the ABs close in Nelson. They're fun to watch as well. 

Could the Pumas threaten through the playoffs stage of the tournament?
Could the Pumas threaten through the playoffs stage of the tournament? Photo credit: Photosport

What's the key area of improvement for the All Blacks?

Day: Defence.  Wayne Smith left and it seems as though the All Blacks haven't been able to rediscover their defensive formula without The Professor.  The All Blacks will score points - that's never an issue -  but letting them in is becoming a problem.

Chapman: New Zealand has never really embraced the drop goal as part of its rugby culture.

While South Africa and England have won World Cups with the three-pointer, we've preferred to chase the titles with a bit more panache - and it hasn't always worked out well for us.

The 'eureka' moments of the All Blacks' 2015 success was Dan Carter stopping and popping at crucial points in the semi and final.

Not only did those strikes provide telling momentum shifts in the context of those games, they also showed that the men in black had addressed an obvious Achilles heel in previous campaigns.

Yes, we love the All Blacks' determination to play expansive, attractive rugby, but there has to be some common sense with that. We also need the drop goal in our arsenal and to not be afraid to use it when appropriate.

That was the biggest takeaway from last week's loss to the Springboks.

Munro: Selection. There's no doubting the All Blacks have the quality to make it a three-peat. But Hansen and co. could trip on their own feet trying to accommodate their back three talent into the match-day 23, solve the midfield puzzle, and decide who their lock and loose forward reserves will be.

A settled side from this November onwards will have the best chance of bringing Bill home.

Gourdie: Developing a plan B. The All Blacks didn't have one when they needed it in Wellington, and they simply have to learn from that experience. 

If either of the last two World Cup victories have taught us anything, it's that somewhere, against someone, the match isn't going to go to script. They will need to push through a tight match. They have 365 days to sort out a plan. 

Rounce: Beauden Barrett's goal-kicking and drop goals. No, I'm kidding. Being wary of versatility. Just because players can cover multiple positions, doesn't mean they're better than a specialist.