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.”
The Welsh rugby goldfish bowl is like water off a duck’s back to Dan Biggar as he prepares for an impending Rugby World Cup challenge in Japan.
The Northampton fly-half has had his critics during a 73-cap Test career – most recently, former Wales wing JJ Williams claiming that Wales would not win a World Cup with Biggar at number 10.
But it says everything about his durability and match-controlling longevity that Biggar has arrived in Asia as an integral part of Wales’ global supremacy bid.
After playing key roles off the bench for much of last season, working in tandem with Gareth Anscombe, Biggar now steps forward to reclaim Wales’ number 10 shirt while Anscombe continues his recovery from a World Cup-ending knee injury.
And Biggar’s worth to Wales head coach Warren Gatland cannot be understated ahead of the tournament.
“Comments are comments,” Biggar said. “I have had it my whole career.
“It really doesn’t bother me. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I actually quite enjoy those things as it gives me motivation.
“I meant it to be a bit tongue-in-cheek at the end (Biggar thanked Williams for his comments after Wales beat England last month).
“It was not so much the comments about me, but we had won 14 on the bounce prior to that England game, it was our first game of a new season with lots of boys playing at Twickenham, which is not the easiest place to play anyway.
“It’s less about me – I couldn’t care less what he said about me – it was more the negative comment about the team after one difficult afternoon.”
Asked about big occasions and criticism firing him, Biggar added: “I’m competitive. I don’t mind that side of it – it’s part and parcel of the job.
“If you are not comfortable with that, and in the position I play in this country, then you’re probably in the wrong job. I don’t tend to put any pressure on myself, really.
“Certainly in the last few years since I’ve had a little boy and with my family, they are the most important thing to me, anyway.
“That’s been a big thing for me over the last 12-18 months, but I quite like having it (criticism) and performing on the big stage. Hopefully, I can keep delivering if called upon.”
Biggar proved an instant hit in his first season at Franklin’s Gardens, helping Saints reach the Gallagher Premiership play-offs last term.
“I’m not going to tell anyone else what to do because they have to do their own thing, but for me it (Northampton move) has been the best thing I’ve done,” he said.
“I had 10 fabulous years at the Ospreys and loved every minute of it, but for me getting outside of the goldfish bowl… with all due respect, you guys aren’t bothered if we play Newcastle or Sale away on a Friday night.
“Even though Northampton is a rugby-mad town, it’s quite nice to be outside the bubble there instead of Wales, where rugby is all year round.”
Gatland handed Biggar a Wales debut during his first year at the helm in 2008 – and the Saints number 10 has no doubt about the New Zealander’s impact.
“What Warren has done since he has been here is instil a belief, more than anything,” Biggar added.
“When we go into games against England or Australia, South Africa, we are always going with the mindset that we are going to win, whereas before it was more in hope rather than expectation.
“We are fully aware we are up against some big teams – just in our pool, let alone the latter stages of the tournament – and it’s about making sure the belief is right.
“If we can get out of the pool first, the other seven teams in the quarter-finals will not want to play us.”
England wing Joe Cokanasiga has revealed he feels nervous ahead of games against top opposition.
Cokanasiga’s power has made him a force on the international stage since making his debut against Japan eight caps ago and he has all the attributes to emerge as a star of the Rugby World Cup.
The 21-year-old Fijian-born giant has crossed five times in six starts, including against Wales and Australia, and has been hugely effective as a battering ram with superb pace.
But for all his formidable physical prowess, he suffers pre-match tension.
“I’m definitely impressed with how I’ve met each challenge. I get quite nervous playing against the big teams like Australia and Wales,” Cokanasiga said.
“Sometimes I question myself whether I can do it. But then once I’m in the game I’m back to my normal sense and just try to do what I do.
“Obviously I hate being nervous but it shows that you do care. But once that whistle goes, something just goes and you think ‘I’m here for a reason’, so just try to show it.
“The last 12 months have gone pretty quickly for me. I haven’t really had time to think about it and process everything but looking back it’s been a dream come true. Hopefully I can keep building on that.”
All five of Cokanasiga’s tries have been scored at Twickenham, but it is another aspect of playing for England that really excites the Bath juggernaut.
“Singing the national anthem tops that, it’s the best thing and a dream come true,” he said.
“I nearly cried on my first cap. Once you’re singing the national anthem you get a lot of emotions coming through and you feel like everything you’ve done has been worth it just for this moment.”