Sean Fitzpatrick, the former All Blacks captain, rates Brodie Retallick more important to New Zealand's bid to make it three successive World Cup title wins than Mako Vunipola's return from injury for England in Japan.
World Cup winner Fitzpatrick dismisses the suggestion a fit-again Mako Vunipola would be just as effective for England and puts Retallick in a class of his own because the rangy forward has a skill set no one else can replicate.
Lock is one of the areas the All Blacks could be found wanting if they suffer any more injuries with Retallick possibly missing all of the pool matches which start this Saturday with that titanic battle between New Zealand and South Africa, who have a wealth of second row power.
Retallick has not played since seriously damaging his shoulder against South Africa in Wellington on July 27 while Vunipola injured his hamstring in the August warm-up Test against Ireland having only just recovered from surgery after damaging the leg in the Heineken Cup final. Vunipola will miss England's pool games with Tonga on Sunday and USA, with a possible return pencilled in against Argentina on October 5.
Fitzpatrick told RugbyPass: "Retallick is crucial for the All Blacks at the World Cup and while they can still win without him, it would make it a lot better if he was there. You are going to need, as we saw in 2015, an entire squad effort if you are going to win the quarters, semis and final to lift the cup.
"The team with the least injuries will prevail and I don't agree that Mako Vunipola is as important to England as Retallick is to New Zealand. I have no doubt that Retallick is a lot more important because England have Joe Marler and Ellis Genge to cover the loosehead position.
"Having lost Retallick for at least the early pool games, if we lose Sam Whitelock or Patrick Tuipulotu then we are in big trouble. The All Blacks squad is still good enough to beat most teams and it is just a question of can we do it over three major games which is a huge workload and you have to be able to rotate players.
"What the All Blacks did in the Rugby Championship was to play this other type of game and persisted with it which, in the final match with Australia in Auckland, showed they do have another string to their bow. Two No7s playing together does give you other options."
The former hooker is confident the All Blacks will handle the pressure of trying to make history by defending the title again and rates them favourites despite recent problems against the Springboks.
"I have no doubt that going into the tournament New Zealand are still the team to beat, but it is going to take a huge effort to win the World Cup because we haven't had the depth of teams who could win it in previous tournaments.
"Because New Zealand are the best team, everyone wants to beat them by playing the game of their lives. Steve Hansen and his fellow coaches know exactly what it is going to take to win it again and what to expect.
"I'm very happy we have got them coaching the All Blacks because they have been outstanding having faced challenges this year – more so than ever. I wouldn't be surprised if the All Blacks go back to Beauden Barrett at No10 and Ben Smith at full-back for the South Africa pool match.
"South Africa are very dangerous team and I'm quite happy that we won't potentially see them after the pool opener until the final and you wouldn't want to be playing them in the quarters or semis. Then you have England who are fit, strong with a very solid game plan and they will be hard to beat."
Fitzpatrick, who has an Irish passport through his grandfather, has just discovered he was almost 100 per cent qualified to play for Ireland rather than the All Blacks where he won 92 caps and collected a World Cup medal in 1987.
"The test showed I am 95 per cent Irish, which is understandable, and five per cent Croatian," said Fitzpatrick, who took a MyHeritage DNA test to learn about his origins. "I am five per cent Croatian through my grandmother, so I was qualified to play for New Zealand, Ireland and Croatia!"
This article first appeared on RugbyPass.com and is republished with permission
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