Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby World Cup: Boks as favoured as black

South African coach Peter de Villiers says the All Blacks are the team to beat. Photo / Getty Images
South African coach Peter de Villiers says the All Blacks are the team to beat. Photo / Getty Images

Playing at home as the IRB's No 1 ranked team, the All Blacks are the gambling fraternity's favourites to win the World Cup.

Whether they should take any confidence from that is debatable. The All Blacks have been favourites before and it's hardly done them any good. The only team to arrive as favourites and walk away with the Webb Ellis Cup was England in 2003.

It so rarely happens because pre-tournament rugby is not usually an accurate guide as to what will happen at the event.

Winning the Six Nations, Tri Nations or a series against the British and Irish Lions is not the same challenge as winning the World Cup. There is no room for error; it's knockout rugby with the games coming bang-bang-bang and momentum and confidence can build quickly as England showed indisputably
in 2007.

They sacked their coach in November 2006 after a loss to Argentina was deemed the final straw.

They were thumped by Ireland and Wales in the 2007 Six Nations, drilled 36-0 by South Africa in the pool rounds and senior players fell out with coach Brian Ashton, yet they made the final, played all the rugby and probably should have beaten the Springboks instead of losing 15-6.

The All Blacks, ranked No 1 in the world since July 2005, came into the 2007 tournament having only lost three of their last 35 tests. They
had won three consecutive Tri Nations, posted record defeats of France and yet were dumped out by that very same team in the quarter-finals.

History has distorted the per-ception of the immediate pre-tournament scenario in 1987, when the All Blacks won their only title. They romped their way to the trophy, crushing Italy, Argentina and Fiji in the pool round, before dismissing Scotland, Wales and France with little fuss in the playoffs. Yet, despite being the ease with which they won it, they didn't come into the World Cup as favourites.

"The thing no-one remembers now is that we weren't
the favourites," 1987 coach Brian Lochore recalled ahead of the 2007 World Cup. "We really weren't. We had just been beaten by France and by Australia, so we were one of the three favoured teams, but by no means the favourites."

The bookies had the All Blacks as the third favourites behind Australia and a France team which had won back-to-back Five Nations and had comprehensively out-muscled the All Blacks 16-3 in a savage encounter in Nantes in November 1986.

The All Blacks were also in turmoil in 1986 due to the Cavaliers and the difficult integration with the Baby Blacks.

In fact, adversity is perhaps the common trait many of the winning teams share. The Wallabies of 1991 were beaten up by the Lions in 1989 and that series defeat sowed the seeds of their triumph two years later. After losing the series, the Wallabies made a number of personnel changes up front, bringing in physical beasts such as Willie Ofahengaue, Tony Daly, Phil Kearns, John Eales and Ewen McKenzie.

The South Africans were patchy in 1994 - sharing a home series with England and then losing 2-0 to the All Blacks in New Zealand that same year. They never looked like potential winners leading into 1995.

Trying to determine, then, who is really the true favourite for the 2011 tournament is a tricky business. The Wallabies have picked up plenty of support after winning their first Tri Nations since 2001. They have a strong tournament pedigree and, in coach Robbie Deans, they have a man with a proven track record at planning and executing campaigns. But Australia don't necessarily convince, despite their recent form. The ease with which the
All Blacks beat them up in the second half in Brisbane should be a concern. Even though it took a while to
be implemented, the All Blacks did at least have a Plan B.

Australia don't have much to offer beyond fast and wide. Their scrum was buckling in Brisbane by the end, their lineout disintegrating and their breakdown work diminishing. Quade Cooper doesn't really have the tactical nous or technical expertise to control a game with his boot and there just isn't enough variety in their offering to see them winning.

England are another country with great World Cup history and have to be a strong chance of making the final. But actually winning it? They are similar to Australia in that they have one way of playing - aggressive, set piece-driven rugby with brutal work all over the field. They have tried to be more expansive but it doesn't come naturally and a midfield of Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall will get them over the gain line but not into dangerous
places out wide.

There are two teams who should be seen as the favourites. South Africa have had a poor build-up and are under some pressure - optimum conditions for World Cup success.

They have a tough group to gain match conditioning and confidence and nearly half their squad was involved in their 2007 triumph. They play perfect knockout rugby and will be comfortable with the fact so many pundits have already written them off.

The All Blacks are the other side to consider as favourites, despite their recent lack of success and their notorious inability to perform well at World Cups. Any complacency has been shaken out of them and,
for the first time in the professional age, they are coming into a World Cup with some public heat.

They have a fire burning inside them and, far from being a disaster, the loss in Brisbane could be the game they look back on most fondly; the game that was the catalyst for their World Cup success.

That was a stark reminder of how focused they need to be and of how dangerous it is to show up five per cent off the pace. Technically, they are among the best sides and tactically, they have more options than anyone.

He doesn't often speak much sense but South Africa coach Peter de Villiers got it right when he said last week: "To beat the All Blacks in New Zealand will be very tough and they remain favourites for the World Cup."

- Herald on Sunday

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