Rugby World Cup 2019 Profile: New Zealand - Who can stop the All Blacks magic in Japan?

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With the Rugby World Cup just two days away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. After profiling 19 teams, we finish our series with defending champions New Zealand. 

The dominant team of the current professional era face challengers from every angle in their quest for a historic third successive Rugby World Cup title.

Four years ago in England, Steve Hansen’s side were heavy favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup and they duly delivered with a final win over the Wallabies.

However, this time round, it is considered to be the most open tournament in years as questions arise after the All Blacks’ mixed build-up to rugby’s global showpiece.

A narrow win over Argentina, a 16-16 draw against South Africa and a record 47-26 defeat against the Wallabies in Perth had some Kiwi fans believing the team were in a state of crisis before the tournament even began.

But just like great teams do, they responded emphatically to stick 36 points on Australia at Eden Park the following week and confirm their status as World Cup favourites.

New Zealand open their defence against South Africa in Yokohoma on Saturday – a match that could define their passage to a third consecutive final.

But, whether they finish first or second in Pool A, the All Blacks should storm into the knockout stages.

After the match against the Springboks, they play Canada and Namibia in the space of five days, before finishing off a week later against Italy in Toyota.

If they top the group, they are likely to face Scotland in the quarter-finals and England in the semis. Should they lose to the Springboks, they will likely face Ireland in the last eight and Wales in the last four.

Tough selection calls by management has seen 108-times capped prop Owen Franks omitted from the 31-man squad – a resounding shock considering the Northampton man was one of Hansen’s most trusted lieutenants over the years.

The All Blacks coach instead opted for youth and mobility with the likes of Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao – players who have earned just nine caps between them.

As disappointing a blow as it may be, Franks’ absence – along with Ngani Laumape and Liam Squire – shows the team’s considerable strength in depth.

The other striking absentee from the squad – though it is old news – is Damien McKenzie.

The elusive full-back suffered an ACL injury playing for the Chiefs back in April, and will be a significant loss to the reigning champions’ ambitions in Japan.

The result of McKenzie’s devastating injury has seen star man Beauden Barrett shift to full-back during the Rugby Championship, with Richie Mo’unga taking over at fly-half in a dual playmaking role.

Whether Hansen sticks to this tactic for the entire competition remains to be seen but it proved effective in Bledisloe 2 at Eden Park.

The battle for the wing spots will be interesting with Seevu Reece and George Bridge showing their pace, power and overall class against Australia and Tonga in recent weeks. A loss of form for Rieko Ioane – with 23 tries in 26 matches – could put his place in jeopardy.

Elsewhere, 2014 World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick has been named in the squad but is unlikely to play until the knockout stages as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder. Centre Ryan Crotty, meanwhile, is touch and go but should feature at some point during the pool stage.

Recent history suggests the All Blacks should secure a third successive title but an upset is always possible at the World Cup. It is a competition where anything can happen. The last big shock was back in 2007 when New Zealand were dominated by a Thierry Dusautoir-inspired France side in the quarter-finals.

In 2019 though, some individual records beckon for captain Kieran Read, lock Sam Whitelock and centre Sonny Bill Williams. The experienced trio are chasing three consecutive World Cup winners medals, having played key roles in the 2011 and 2015 triumphs.

With Hansen’s squad depicting a strong blend of youth, experience, hunger and panache, New Zealand are right to be considered the formidable force in Japan.

Their small slip-ups over the last 12 months will give the rest of the competition just the faintest glimmer of hope, but in a high pressure environment, the All Blacks simply know how to get the job done.

Nickname(s): All Blacks

Emblem: Silver fern frond

Union: New Zealand Rugby Union

Head coach: Steve Hansen

Captain: Kieran Read

Most caps: Richie McCaw (148)

Top scorer: Dan Carter (1598)

Top try scorer: Doug Howlett (49)

Best Finish: Winners (1987, 2011, 2015)

Fixtures: South Africa (September 21), Canada (October 2), Namibia (October 6), Italy (October 12)

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Rugby World Cup 2019: Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and other New Zealand players to watch out for

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With New Zealand’s first match in the Rugby World Cup just a few days away, we take a look at the star players who will be key to their Webb Ellis trophy prospects in Japan.

Kieran Read

Position: No8

The skipper silenced critics from the defeat to Australia in Bledisloe 1 as he orchestrated his forwards and battered the Wallabies defence in their final match at Eden Park. He leads from the front, looked still at his aggressive best and tackles his heart out. Keeps the team composed at all times, something that will be key come the latter stages of the World Cup.

Brodie Retallick
Position: Lock

His physicality can set the tone for his team in defence and at the breakdown. At 6’ 10”, the line-out is his obvious chief strength, but he can pop up anywhere, has great ball skills and awareness and never stands back from anyone. He is ruled out until the knockout stages but, when playing, he is one of the All Blacks’ most important players.

Richie Mo’unga
Position: Fly-half

Hasn’t put a foot wrong in the last three matches and looks odds on to start at fly-half. Although many would prefer Barrett at 10 at Ben Smith at 15, Hansen wants both his key playmakers on the field. Solid in defence, the 26-year-old takes great control of the game and looks to create at every opportunity.

Beauden Barrett
Position: Fly-half or full-back

The two-time World Player of the Year might be preferred at fly-half rather than full-back, but he can attack from deep, eye gaps than other players can’t normally see and use all his skill and intelligence to put the likes of Seevu Reece and Rieko Ioane into formidable attacking positions. Can also pair well with Mo’unga in Hansen’s dual play-making tactic.

Rieko Ioane
Position: Wing

The 22-year-old’s form has been called into question in recent months but, when firing, he can cause serious damage with ball in hand. The Auckland man has scored 23 tries in 26 matches and has the searing pace, clever footwork and strength to inspire the All Blacks to a fourth Webb Ellis crown.

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Peter Stringer hoping Ireland can break glass ceiling and reach first-ever World Cup semi-final

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Ireland’s most capped scrum-half Peter Stringer believes Joe Schmidt’s dream of bowing out as the first Irish head coach to guide them to a World Cup semi-final is possible.

Schmidt will bring down the curtain on six years of stunning success after the tournament, six years that have included two historic wins over world champions New Zealand, a first series victory over Australia in nearly 40 years and three Six Nations titles, including a Grand Slam in 2018.

The Kiwi coach is keen to atone for the bitter memory of the disappointing quarter-final exit to Argentina at the 2015 World Cup.

Drawn in a relatively easy qualifying pool with Scotland, Russia, Japan and Samoa, it is the opener against the Scots on Sunday that is likely to shape the fate of the pool, with the winner potentially playing a resurgent South Africa in the quarter-finals and the loser taking on New Zealand.

And, Stringer – who made 98 appearances for the Men in Green – believes anything is possible as Ireland bid to reach the last four for the first time.

“If Ireland get over Scotland and Japan, and based on the result of New Zealand and South Africa early on, you know who you are going to be playing if you qualify for a quarter-final and that’s plenty of motivation. They will have a focus a few weeks in advance then,” Stringer said, speaking to Sport360 at McGettigan’s JLT this week.

“The opportunity of playing in a quarter-final and getting over that hurdle into a semi-final, if they can do it, then anything can happen.”

The key for Ireland is to be primed and firing for their opening two matches against Scotland and Japan, games that will set the tone of how they will play for the rest of the tournament.

With uncertainty over the fitness of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw, the Men in Green will be without three of their front line players for Sunday’s game in Yokohama.

However, Stringer believes Ireland need to be ready as favourable early results will provide them with fresh motivation for the rest of the tournament.

“In the 2007 World Cup, I had an awful experience because we didn’t hit the ground running and we didn’t play well in the first two matches. And that had a knock-on effect in the last two matches,” he recalls.

“Ireland need to be set for the first two matches. It gives them an opportunity to play full strength, and then rest some guys and give some other lads an opportunity to play in the two final pool matches.

“You get over the first two games with the starting 15. You basically know you’re going to be in the quarter-finals.

“You will have those two-three weeks to prepare for the opposition you know you are going to be facing. That’s enough motivation for these guys.”

Stringer, who won three Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam during his 12 years in an Ireland jersey, says he hopes Schmidt has a grand plan to have the team peaking at the right time after several below par performances this year, including a record 57-15 defeat to England last month.

Schmidt is one of the leading coaches in world rugby with his renowned meticulous attention to detail and planning. And despite a disappointing year to date, it is all about the World Cup for him and nothing else.

“The England game was a bit of a disaster. You question how they would go after that and the strength of the squad,” added Stringer. “I was really worried after seeing how they capitulated and they had nothing to offer late on in that game at Twickenham. But they responded well against Wales.

“You hope Joe Schmidt has some master plan in his head and has the team peaking for the right time. You have to be ready for the Scotland game, but to be realistic, Ireland should get to a quarter-final and that’s another five weeks away.

“It gives Ireland a brilliant opportunity to keep working on things and keep developing that game plan. You’d like to put your trust in Joe and what he’s done over the last few years and he will get it right.”

Rugby is a game of patience, and even promising performances and an avoidance of injury in the pool stages will change the otherwise gloomy narrative and inspire a nation.

In order to beat the top teams, Ireland need to bring something different to the table and a more varied game plan is the only way to upset powerhouse nations like New Zealand, England and South Africa.

A positive performance against Wales in the final warm-up match two weeks ago has fans confident again, but those attacking and defensive bursts need to be consistent, according to Stringer.

“There was a glimpse of 2018 in the way Ireland dominated against Wales a few weeks ago. It’s nice to see that but I want to see a more varied game plan against the likes of England, New Zealand and South Africa, games where you might not necessary win the gain line each time,” he added.

“I want Ireland be able to come up with a Plan B when we come up against a bigger team and a bigger set of forwards where we’re not gaining that same dominance.

“We’ve seen what England have done in the past, stalling that attacking plan, knocking us back over the gain line, and forcing us to play off slow ball.

“It’s about developing a consistent game plan and I hope there is more to come from Ireland that will see us get to the semi-finals.”

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