Pool B: hat-trick hunting All Blacks remain the team to beat
Steve Hansen’s side are bidding to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a third-straight time
Beauden Barrett in action against South Africa during the Rugby Championship. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty
Who are they
The All Blacks head to Japan looking to secure an unprecedented third Rugby World Cup on the bounce, after their long-awaited victory on home soil in 2011 was followed up by success in England in 2015. The Kiwis remain world rugby’s supreme force, and head into this autumn’s tournament as clear favourites with the bookies. However, Steve Hansen’s side don’t quite have the same air of invincibility around them as they have done in previous years. Ireland have won two of their last three clashes with the All Blacks, while a resurgent South Africa have won one and drawn another of the two rivals’ last three Test encounters. The most recent of those was a 16-16 tie in the Rugby Championship on July 27th, in which a late Herschel Jantjies try earned his side a share of the spoils away from home in Wellington.
Their most alarming result came in August however, with the Kiwis beaten 47-26 by the Wallabies in Perth. But as is often the case, and with the eyes of the rugby world watching them, they bounced back in ominous style - routing Australia 36-0 at fortress Eden Park. As a result, there is no disputing that New Zealand remain the team to beat this autumn. Sonny Bill Williams is back in the mix for a midfield berth while the brilliant Beauden Barrett will continue to pull the strings at 10. Hansen needs to work on combinations up front - perhaps moving captain Kieran Read to number six as part of a backrow reshuffle - but on the whole his side look to have the nous and strength-in-depth to secure the hat-trick.
Rugby is going to feel a little bit unfamiliar and a little bit strange after the World Cup, with a number of the game’s bastions standing down post-Japan. And as well as Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland leaving their positions, Steve Hansen is also departing for pastures new - ending a 15-year association with the All Blacks, after being appointed as Graham Henry’s assistant in 2004. Hansen’s succession from Henry was seamless, as he took the over as head coach in the wake of the 2011 RWC and then ensured the Webb Ellis Cup returned to New Zealand four years later. Another who will want, and deserves, to go out in style.
A veteran of 119 caps, 33-year-old Kieran Read is probably heading for his swansong in Japan, but remains a vital part of the All Blacks backrow. There has been talk Read could be moved from number eight to blindside flanker in order to solve a lack of depth at six and to accommodate the in-form Ardie Savea - a move Read is reportedly not happy about. However Read - who took the captaincy from Richie McCaw in - will likely perform any role asked off him. He is the ultimate professional, as shown by his behaviour in the wake of the drawn Lions series in 2017.
The one to watch
Perhaps not the most original choice but Beauden Barrett remains one of the most exhilarating players on the planet, and he is absolutely pivotal to New Zealand’s hopes in Japan. The 28-year-old’s talent need no introduction - he is one rugby’s great creative outhalves with an unbelievable running game and unparalleled vision with the ball in hand. Barrett has recently been starting at fullback, allowing Richie Mo’Unga to take the number 10 jersey - a potentially devastating combination if given a chance to develop.
Their RWC moment
The All Blacks have won the World Cup three times, but the 8-7 victory over France in the 2011 final at Eden Park - which ended a 24-year drought - surely ranks as the best.
Their best RWC finish
Winners: 1987, 2011, 2015
The opening fixture against South Africa is potentially a huge banana skin and would likely see the All Blacks face Ireland in the quarter-finals - Joe Schmidt’s side know what it takes to beat the Kiwis. However, beat the Springboks and it could be Scotland in the last-eight followed by a game for the ages against England. Any route to the final is fraught with danger - but if anyone can do it, it’s New Zealand.
Backs: Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Richie Mo’unga, TJ Perenara, Sevu Reece, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Brad Weber, Sonny Bill Williams
Forwards: Scott Barrett, Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Luke Jacobson, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Joe Moody, Kieran Read (capt), Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea, Angus Ta’avao, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Sam Whitelock