Why this Rugby World Cup feels different for the vulnerable All Blacks

All Blacks captain Sam Cane has come in for criticism  (Getty Images)
All Blacks captain Sam Cane has come in for criticism (Getty Images)

It’s a Rugby World Cup and New Zealand are favourites with the bookies – on the surface, you’d say that some things never change. But this time, it feels different.

Last summer, the All Blacks were in crisis. Well, the closest thing to crisis that this planet’s greatest rugby nation can be, even if the likes of England and Wales could probably still teach them a thing or two about genuine catastrophe.

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Defeats to Ireland and France in autumn 2021 could perhaps be explained away by how tricky it is to go to the northern hemisphere and win against the best of the Six Nations but a first home Test series loss since 1994 in July 2022, as Ireland historically triumphed 2-1, set the alarm bells ringing. A then-heaviest defeat to South Africa for 94 years to begin the Rugby Championship left the previously mighty All Blacks on a streak of five losses in six games and down to a record-low fifth in the world rankings.

Ian Foster had the lowest win percentage of any All Blacks coach since the 1970s and the New Zealand Herald – the country’s largest newspaper and generally a decent bellwether for the national mood – ran a front-page editorial calling for Foster to be sacked. “A decent man who is out of his depth in a brutal business,” the Herald claimed in a piece that ran under the headline “It’s time for change.”

Yet somehow, someway, Foster clung on and started the slow climb back to dominance. An unlikely 35-23 win over the Springboks in Johannesburg just seven days after that 26-10 humbling saved the coach’s job and although a first-ever home loss to Argentina then put him back on rocky ground, they avenged that defeat with a 53-3 mauling a week later and the Bledisloe Cup double over the even-more-beleaguered Australia saw them snatch the Rugby Championship title away from South Africa.

A helter-skelter 25-25 draw with England was the only blemish on a much more successful European excursion that autumn and a clean sweep in the shortened Rugby Championship earlier this summer has now installed them back atop the betting markets, albeit essentially the same price as France and South Africa to win the title.

New Zealand have steered themselves away from complete disaster in recent times (Getty Images)
New Zealand have steered themselves away from complete disaster in recent times (Getty Images)

Yet there are still nagging doubts that this is the least-fancied All Blacks team to ever head into a World Cup. A crushing 35-7 loss to the Springboks at Twickenham in their final warm-up Test was a huge warning sign and defeat to France in the mouthwatering World Cup opener at the Stade de France on Friday evening would seriously raise the pressure.

With Italy, Namibia and Uruguay the other teams in Pool A, it feels unthinkable that they won’t reach the knockout stage but a quarter-final on non-New Zealand soil against either South Africa, Ireland or Scotland could be a different matter.

In the dark days of the summer of 2022, the All Blacks had no clear attacking structure and relied almost solely on the individual brilliance of one of their handful of world-class operators to achieve any success. They have since implemented a system built on quick attacking ruck speed and ruthless, powerful carrying but the recent Springbok annihilation raised questions about whether they’re truly on the right track.

Foster, a continuity candidate following the Steve Hansen era, is leaving after the World Cup as prodigal coaching son Scott Robertson finally takes the reins, while many feel that Sam Cane shouldn’t even be in their best starting XV, let alone wearing the captain’s armband.

World-class players such as Will Jordan, Beauden Barrett, Ardie Savea and Dalton Papali’i still pepper the squad but this isn’t the All Blacks juggernaut of old. The favourites on paper – and of course, it wouldn’t be a true shock to see them lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy on October 28 – but the cracks are there and the pretenders will rightly be hopeful.

New Zealand

Coach: Ian Foster

Captain: Sam Cane

Key Player: Aaron Smith – At the age of 34, this is likely Smith’s final World Cup but his wily know-how keeps this All Blacks attack ticking, even if his speed and physical skills have diminished slightly from his peak as the greatest scrum half on the planet. He’ll meet his successor to that particular crown, Antoine Dupont, in the opening game in a tantalising match-up and for the All Blacks to spoil the French party, Smith will need to release the game-changing talents outside him in the backline.

Rising star: Mark Telea – New Zealand’s rugby history is littered with wingers changing the game and announcing themselves as superstars at a World Cup. Whether Telea can emulate the likes of Jonah Lomu or Julian Savea remains to be seen but the quick and agile 26-year-old has shown his class since his international debut last year, with a nose for the try-line.

Big question: Can the All Blacks’ talented back row dominate the breakdown and provide quality ball to make things easy enough for the occasionally stuttering attack to click?


Forwards: Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Nepo Laulala, Fletcher Newell, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Tamaiti Williams; Dane Coles, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Tupou Vaa’I, Samuel Whitelock, Sam Cane (captain), Shannon Frizell, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papali’i, Ardie Savea

Backs: Finlay Christie, Cam Roigard, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga, Jordie Barrett, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Caleb Clarke, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Will Jordan, Emoni Narawa, Mark Telea


Friday 8 September: France vs New Zealand, Pool A (Paris, 8.15pm)

Friday 15 September:New Zealand vs Namibia, Pool A (Toulouse, 8pm)

Friday 29 September:New Zealand vs Italy, Pool A (Lyon, 8pm)

Thursday 5 October:New Zealand vs Uruguay, Pool A (Lyon, 8pm)