Mils Muliaina believes the 2019 Rugby World Cup will be the “most hotly contested” in the tournament’s 32-year history and claims any one of six teams could be crowned champion in Yokohama on November 2.
The ninth edition of the World Cup kicks off in Japan on Friday with the host nation taking on Russia in Pool A. Reigning world champions New Zealand – already history makers having been the first side to retain the Webb Ellis Cup in England four years ago – will be targeting a three-peat.
But while the All Blacks will head into the showpiece as favourites, former 100-cap star Muliaina says Steve Hansen’s men face huge competition from five other sides – England, South Africa, Ireland, Wales and Australia.
“It’s the most hotly contested World Cup ever and it will come down to the last three weeks,” Muliaina, who was part of the 2011 World Cup-winning side on home soil, said, speaking at the Emirates Airline Rugby Long Lunch in Dubai on Thursday.
Eight years ago was the second time the All Blacks were triumphant and it emphatically answered some niggling questions that had gnawed at New Zealand over the years, having gone five tournaments without success since hoisting the Webb Ellis high at the inaugural tournament – also in New Zealand – back in 1987.
They have since gone on to utterly dominate the international landscape, winning again in 2015 – a feat never previously achieved by any side.
Whereas pressure was once too much to handle, it is something this All Blacks side now thrives on, says Muliaina, who earned 100 caps from 2003-11.
“You talk about pressure. The All Blacks live that pressure,” said the 39-year-old former full-back, whose 2011 tournament was cut short after fracturing his shoulder in the 33-10 quarter-final win over Argentina.
“Steve Hansen has talked about the fact they have to go out there and perform every single game because everyone wants to beat them. If they don’t come home with the trophy it’s an upset.”
“It (the pressure) really hindered us over the years,” he added.
“It’s something the guys didn’t embrace, we ran away from the expectations of a nation. They’ve turned it around and now they walk towards it, the love it. They wear the pressure as a badge.
“It’s all about the mindset. The repeat had never been done before. But it’s alright saying all that, you still have to go out and deliver. And when you have the teams like England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, South Africa – any of those teams can win this World Cup.”
And ex-Blues and Chiefs hero Muliaina has warned the world champions against complacency, citing Japan’s upset of South Africa in 2015 as an example.
Although still the best side in the world, the All Blacks have also not been at their best in World Cup year. In their 46 games since dismantling Australia 34-17 in the final at Twickenham four years ago, New Zealand have won 38, losing only six.
However, three of those losses have come in their last 12 games, with a draw against the Springboks also being recorded in that time. They failed to win this year’s Rugby Championship for the first time since 2015 – drawing 16-16 with the Boks and being thrashed 47-26 by the Wallabies.
So, there is an assumption their indestructible veneer is not quite as thick as it used to be.
They also lost the number one ranking to Wales a few weeks ago, while Ireland – who have beaten the Blacks twice since the last World Cup – will go to Japan ranked No1.
Muliaina added: “It’s a possibility (that one of those big boys doesn’t get through the group). Japan, what they did last time, it’s all about where they end up in the pool and on what side of the draw they end up on.
“With the All Blacks and South Africa, if they slip up they’re facing the Irish in the quarter-final.”
Pressed to pick his two pugilists for the final, Muliaina couldn’t leave out his beloved Blacks though.
“The All Blacks will be number one hopefully,” he said. “I think possibly them and South Africa in the final. Bronze medal, maybe the English and Australia, they’re very quiet but beat us in Perth. I couldn’t tell you. I hope New Zealand are number one.”
Also speaking at the Long Lunch – the traditional curtain raiser to December’s Dubai Rugby Sevens, held annually at the Crowne Plaza, Dubai Festival City, was former Scotland centre Scott Hastings.
And he echoed Muliaina’s thoughts that the World Cup is completely open. “We both think it will be one of the most open World Cups,” said the 54-year-old, a veteran of 64 Dark Blues caps.
“You always look to New Zealand because they kind of set the bar and they’re back to back world champions. Everyone realises they’re not the number one team in the rankings but they’re the number one team in the world.
“Then you throw into the mix South Africa, who are playing so well and have beaten New Zealand in the last 12 months. England, who are looking powerful under Eddie Jones, Ireland who are the No1 team in the world under Joe Schmidt, who is a great coach.
“Warren Gatland and Wales, who are a very difficult team to play against. So there’s a real opportunity there.
“Even mercurial Scotland could cause an upset, or France or Argentina. Once you get to the quarter-finals, the knockouts will deliver the pressure and the moments.”
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