There is a widespread feeling that the All Blacks are more vulnerable now than they have been for a very long time. Well, I actually think that this team is stronger across the board than four years ago. And they didn't do too badly then, did they?
That 2015 team were pretty incredible. There were a few guys who were really peaking at the previous World Cup; Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were finishing on a high. The young lock combination of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick was playing at its peak. They may not now have players quite at the heights of some in 2015 - that remains to be seen - but perhaps there is an even broader spread of skill across this team.
They have a really good mix of youth and experience and competition for places. Take Beauden Barrett: two years ago, who would have thought anyone would challenge for his position? Likewise, Rieko Ioane went from strength to strength in 2017: few would have guessed that he'd now be fighting for his spot.
Clearly results don't suggest that they are a team to match 2015, but I think there are a number of reasons why.
Everything that we have seen in the past 12 months, and possibly farther back than that, has been geared towards performing at this World Cup at their absolute best. There have been questions over whether the best days are behind players such as Kieran Read, Whitelock, Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith, but they are on a completely different training dynamic from the 22 and 23-year-olds. My faith is in the conditioning staff having these guys peak when they want them to, which was not earlier in the year in the Rugby Championship but the middle of October.
Then, look at that UK tour last year when Ireland beat them and England pushed them so close. I asked myself: what are the coaches trying to get out of this tour? Because what I saw was the All Blacks painting in black and white rather than the full palette of colours. That doesn't mean they didn't try their best but I don't think they played their natural game.
We would normally see the All Black forwards tipping the ball on, all those short passes. We didn't see as much of that as we are used to. We certainly haven't seen a lot of Sonny Bill Williams's distribution of late.
There was an element last November of looking ahead to the World Cup and not wanting to give too much away. More than that, though, I think it goes back to the Lions series in 2017 and that incredibly fast, furious and stifling defence. Teams know that the All Blacks are dangerous if they have space and can dictate the tempo of a game, so they try to stop that with defence, which the Lions did so well.
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The All Blacks need to resort to different methods. While teams come racing up and still have the energy to do that, we need another type of game. When legs get more weary, that's when we can play the game that's been more successful for us.
The All Blacks see Ireland and England as the best in the world for that disciplined, structured game, tenderising teams with a cudgel, direct, not a lot of subtlety about it. They do it so well. Last November, the All Blacks wanted to test themselves against the best at doing that, to try to play a game that isn't quite their strength. They wanted to improve their ability to play that game so that they could resort to it, if required, in the World Cup.
That, I think, was the plan and it is one of the reasons why the All Blacks haven't looked, to many, as strong as they once were. We shall see.
The All Blacks open their title defence against South Africa today, and it is obviously a massive game, though also it is not the be-all and end-all. The Japanese have long been such massive All Blacks supporters. It's their default team. New Zealand will therefore want to harness the energy of the Japanese fans and feed off it. Yet they risk losing that energy if they are beaten in their first game.
For New Zealanders, meanwhile, this may surprise you but I actually think that maybe the little, old chip on the shoulder is off a bit now. After winning the past two World Cups, I don't think we've got the same sort of angst. We still obviously want to see our team do well - and I think we will anyway. Write us off at your peril.
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