With the Rugby Championship drawing to a close earlier this month, the world of rugby union was once again reminded of the formidable challenge any team will face if they wish to usurp New Zealand’s All Blacks as champions at the 2015 World Cup.
A brilliant performance from South Africa earlier in the month was the only thing that put a stop to the Kiwis’ remarkable run of 22 test matches undefeated. Even defeat in Johannesburg could not prevent New Zealand from achieving a third consecutive overall Championship victory since the competition was remodelled from the Tri Nations in 2012.
Despite the loss of talismanic fly-half Dan Carter, still recovering from a broken leg, the All Blacks were in imperious form throughout the tournament. Huge victories against Australia and Argentina demonstrated the Kiwis’ dominance and strength in depth. Perhaps the most telling statistic of the competition was the gulf in points scored against points conceded by each team. Second placed South Africa finished with a net points total of +24, New Zealand finished with a net total of +73.
Not only did this show the attacking flair and invention the New Zealanders undoubtedly possess, with their points scored total the highest overall, but also highlights the strength of their sides’ defensive capabilities with their defence conceding the fewest points by a comfortable margin. Few would have expected any other result going into the Championship, though perhaps the loss to South Africa was not overly surprising given the Springboks’ own formidable line-up.
The apparent ease with which New Zealand dismantled the Australian defence in their 51-20 win in August will be a stark reminder to the All Blacks’ competitors for the 2015 Rugby World Cup of the incredible try-scoring skill of the New Zealand backs. Across all six matches the All Blacks showcased their lethal finishing ability and extraordinary handling in scoring an astonishing 17 tries and in this form it is difficult to see anybody standing in the way of yet another All Black World Cup victory.
While teams have occasionally managed famous victories against the All Blacks, these games have been few and far between in the past decade or so and based on the strength of their showing at this year’s Rugby Championship it easy to see why. Time and again, New Zealand demonstrate a level of skill, fitness and dedication that no other team in world rugby seem able to match on a consistent basis, as well as the kind of winning mentality – highlighted in their last gasp 29-28 victory over Australia – that has driven them to the pinnacle of their sport. This combination of the will to win, world class players and unequalled strength in depth has made the All Blacks possibly the most feared and successful team in world sport. However, this is not to say that the 2015 World Cup is a mere formality. England’s rugby union side have been a work-in-progress under the stewardship of Stuart Lancaster and are finally beginning to look the part with the emergence of some potential star players and a more coherent playing style. Australia demonstrated their ability to challenge the All Blacks when they play to the best of their ability and are focussed on their rugby rather than distracted by off-field issues and South Africa – far and away the “best-of-the-rest” – showed they have the players and the game-plan to ensure their matches with New Zealand could not be further from a foregone conclusion.
While these four nations are probably going to be challenging for a spot in the final come September 2015, and would likely be most pundits’ choice for a finals spot, the Rugby World Cup has a history of springing surprises. With the ever improving standard of rugby union across the world and the level of performance in the World Cup tending to inspire players, anything could happen and when the final rolls around we could be seeing almost any of union’s top sides vying for rugby union’s greatest prize.
The smart money is probably still on New Zealand though.