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100 days until Rugby World Cup - on the field

getty

    02 Jun 2011     getty

Nobody knows this better than the All Blacks themselves, with the leadership group meeting with coaches and management last month to discuss the upcoming tournament.

A focus to look ahead, at the here and the now, has taken something of a back seat for the All Blacks as they openly acknowledge there have been aspects of their preparation in the past that may have affected their campaigns.

As for the team itself, little more at this stage could be done.

The All Blacks finished 2010 as the International Rugby Board’s number one ranked rugby nation, winning 13 from 14 test matches, holding the Bledisloe Cup with a 3-1 series victory over the Wallabies, whitewashing the Investec Tri Nations, before heading to Europe to record a touring Grand Slam.

Most questions regarding players that could be answered were, but for one or two lingering points.

Sonny Bill Williams heralded arrival in a black jersey has created uncertainty as to who will constitute the All Blacks starting second five-eighth, while competition in some places – such as scrumhalf – will be intriguing posers to be sorted by the selectors as they name their final 30-man World Cup squad.

Three weeks of the Investec Super Rugby regular season remain, and three more will entail the expanded final’s series.

Debate and consternation around the All Blacks selection table will be heating up, but for all of the opinion regarding the final makeup of the cherished men to break a 24-year World Cup drought, the key selections will be straight forward.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Brad Thorn, Mils Muliaina, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Andrew Hore constitute the leadership group.

A question could float over Hore, whose form has hardly been benchmark setting of late, but he has proven himself and has the exact qualities required on the grandest of stages.  Muliaina and Smith could also fall into this category, playing for teams that have struggled this season, but their class won’t be questioned.

Henry will also call on a host of players that he called on back in 2004, when he first took the coaching reigns, with Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu, Jerome Kaino and Tony Woodcock all names that will figure in selection reckonings.

Others who filled invaluable roles for Henry in the past will not take place in the upcoming World Cup, with former captain Tana Umaga still running around but an elder statesman, while number eight Rodney So’oialo has struggled with back injuries of late.

Some will be firmly on the radar, but will anxiously wait for their injuries to heal.

Israel Dagg, Isaia Toeava and Colin Slade are names that come to mind. Their potential inclusion presents a myriad of factors to consider. Slade has had precious little time to cement his claims as a genuine backup playmaker, while strike players like ‘Ice’ have shown their x-factor this season.

There could be some bolters, with Matt Todd and Robbie Fruean coming to mind, but selection of such players will largely depend on whether or not the selectors feel they have enough options to certain positions.

But overall form, considered by some the most important facet in selection, is clearly on the side of New Zealand’s flagship players.

McCaw and Carter are hitting form, Sonny Bill continues to show development, the Franks brothers are scrumming titans, while Mealamu is in remarkable touch.

Ex All Blacks who have not recently featured in the side are also putting their hands up, with Adam Thomson, Ben Smith and Sean Maitland putting in consistent displays.

Selection will then take a back seat to other factors that can influence on the field.

The match at Suncorp Stadium again reinforced that referees can have a factor on the result, and while this may be galling to supporters, they are prone to mistakes like any other player – calling the laws of the game as they see them.

The All Blacks have been confronted by this on the lofty stage of the World Cup in their last tournament, but ultimately, such intangible points can be put aside if a team is good enough.

Close contests may not be so willing to back this up, but while McCaw and his craft present a risk factor with his flirting with the rules, the advantage the All Blacks have in having their captain mature and develop in recent years will be as formidable as when England and South Africa had Martin Johnson and John Smit in their pomp.

However what of the other contenders?

In our own Hemisphere there is no doubt that the All Blacks biggest threats come from a convalescing Wallabies and defending champion Springboks.

The Wallabies, the only side to lower the All Blacks colours in their last 20 tests, are threatening due to the fact that they are clearly a side on the up. Their confidence and desire to attack – equaled only by their Trans-Tasman rivals – is what makes them so dangerous.

The usual questions will arise regarding the Wallabies “starch” up front and so forth, but the reality is that such perceived issues have always lingered around the Australians and they have managed to overcome them emphatically on occasions.

The Springboks can never be written off, attempting to become the first nation to successfully defend a World Cup. The form of their Super Rugby teams has been imposing over the last month, as has the return to form for test veterans that some in the Republic believed may have held on too long to their jerseys.

It is already assumed that they will bring a strategy and approach that is neither subtle nor tactically genius, but as England found out late last year, knowing what the Springboks will throw and you – and then countering it, are two different things.

The Six Nations champions will mount the most compelling assault on the World Cup, with the English in the midst of their own revolution.

Buttressed with the flair of the Northampton Saints, the grit of Leicester and the tenacity and organisation displayed by Saracens – England’s three top domestic teams – the big threat that the Red Rose brings to New Zealand in September is a new vibrancy.

Such verve has led to many believing that coach Martin Johnson is indeed on the right track.

Grand Slam spoilers Ireland will a interesting proposition, showing in their final Six Nations match at Aviva Stadium how menacing they can be when cornered, and the exclamation mark on their credentials was provided by Leinster’s Heineken Cup win.

Wales, Scotland and France will all bring their unique bids, although all three nations would have preferred more positive results recently on the European stages.

And then of course there is the minnows.

The Pacific Islands are fearsome propositions at World Cups, witness Fiji’s remarkable win over Wales and their shocking of the eventual World Champion Springboks in the quarter-finals.

Georgia, who lost to Ireland 14-10, will arrive as European Nations Cup champions, while Japan recently confirmed their entry with a dominant campaign against fellow Asian teams.

All Blacks at the 2011 Rugby World Cup

Pool A – New Zealand, France, Japan, Tonga and Canada

9th September – NZ v Tonga @ Eden Park
16th September – NZ v Japan @ Waikato Stadium
24th September – NZ v France @ Eden Park
2nd October – NZ v Canada @ Wellington Stadium

New Zealand 2007 World Cup squad: Dan Carter, Jerry Collins, Andrew Ellis, Nick Evans, Carl Hayman, Andrew Hore, Doug Howlett, Chris Jack, Byron Kelleher, Sione Lauaki, Brendon Leonard, Luke McAlister, Richie McCaw, Leon MacDonald, Chris Masoe, Aaron Mauger, Keven Mealamu, Mila Muliaina, Anton Oliver, Keith Robinson, Josevata Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Conrad Smith, Rodney So'oialo, Reuben Thorne, Neemia Tialata, Isaia Toeava, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock.