Less than a week has passed since New Zealand became the first side ever to retain the Rugby World Cup following a thrilling 34-17 defeat of Australia in Twickenham, and bookmakers have already installed Steve Hansen’s side as even-money favourites to win a third on the spin in Japan in four years’ time.
In some respects this confidence seems misplaced.
After all, New Zealand have possessed the strongest team heading into virtually every World Cup since 1987, and yet they have still only lifted the Webb Ellis trophy three times in eight attempts. It is also notable that the New Zealanders have to cope with a raft of significant retirements ahead of the 2019 tournament.
Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, for instance, have ended their New Zealand careers in order to take up lucrative club contracts in France. Veteran hooker Keven Mealamu retired after last weekend’s triumph and, despite some signs of hesitation, the legendary captain Richie McCaw is expected to follow suit.
These departures add up to a loss of over 600 caps worth of elite level Test experience, and that cannot be replaced in the coming 48 months. Argentina, South Africa and Australia, meantime, all boast hugely talented young, developing squads and each already came close to toppling New Zealand in this World Cup.
Thus, while Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer may well have been justified in referring to the 2015 All Blacks as “the best team that has ever played the game,” the margins of New Zealand’s triumph were finer than many commentators have made out. Indeed, it was arguably only the individual brilliance of the soon to be departed Carter which saved them from blowing the final in last 10 minutes.
Still, New Zealand have consistently proven themselves capable of replacing world class talent in the past. The term “conveyor belt” has seldom been more accurately used than in reference to the manner in which the All Blacks always seem to have a Test class understudy for every player in their first 15.
Just as Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are poised to succeed McCaw at number 7, for instance, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett will vie for Carter’s number 10 shirt. These are players of a calibre sufficient to walk into the starting line-up of most Test nations, and each already possesses a high level of international experience.
Cruden, for example, is 26 and has 37 caps to his name, while at 23, Cane has already represented New Zealand 31 times. This is what succession planning looks like when it is executed to a tee at the highest level of international sport and Hansen emphasized the faith that he has in the coming generation to sustain New Zealand’s momentum through to 2019.
“The pleasing thing is we have got a massive group of players who have played between 20 and 40 Test matches who are in great shape to take this team forward once these other guys decide to move on,” Hansen said. “The opportunity will come now for someone else to try to be better than Richie or better than Dan.”
That is a scary thought for those nations whose job it is to knock New Zealand off of its perch in Japan, and it is two years since the Guardian’s Andy Bull suggested that the Kiwis’ mastery of succession planning means that they are only going to become more dominant in years to come.
“Hansen and McCaw have built a side that spans two generations of players and, by combining the best of both, have done it without compromising their performance”, Bull observed. “The best are only getting better.”
But in addition to the quality of players New Zealand have ready to come into the starting side, their chances of success in Japan would also seem to be enhanced by the psychological impact of lifting the Webb Ellis cup somewhere other than Auckland.
Prior to last weekend, the All Blacks had only ever won the World Cup in Eden Park, and it was clear long after 1987 that New Zealand’s inability to win a second Webb Ellis title was principally a consequence of their inability to deal with pressure.
The New Zealanders got lucky to win their home World Cup in 2011, but that victory seemed to provide Hansen’s squad with the confidence that they needed to hit their top level in England and win on foreign soil simply by being the best team.
By triumphing last Saturday, therefore, New Zealand not only became the first three-time winners of the Rugby World Cup, they also proved that they can perform under huge pressure away from home. On this basis it is difficult not to make New Zealand favourites for a hat-trick in 2019.
[Images via Getty Images]