If you thought the New Zealand sides of old were good then the current crop of All Blacks may just be the strongest World Cup group they have ever had.
In 1995, 1999, 2007 and 2011 the All Blacks went into World Cups as overwhelming favourites in spite of a chokers’ tag hanging over them, but the class of 2015 are serial winners.
Twelve of the squad were part of a long overdue world triumph on home soil four years ago (and coach Steve Hansen was there too as assistant to Graham Henry). South Africa have eight players remaining from 2007 and England none from 2003, so that makes the All Blacks not only man-for-man the best squad at the tournament but also one with more winning pedigree than any of their opponents – an advantage they have never had before.
To reference England’s success 12 years ago may seem unnecessary but it is relevant here, for four of the All Blacks squad that will take part in this year’s spectacle were there in Australia where they were beaten by the Wallabies in the semi-final.
Those four – hooker Keven Mealamu, prop Tony Woodock, captain Richie McCaw and fly-half Dan Carter – will all retire from international rugby when this tournament is over and will be joined in hanging up their All Black jerseys by veteran centre pairing Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
Those six bring not only a scary amount of experience – 674 caps between them – but of skill too. Make no mistake, they are going out at the peak of their powers – this is no sentimental farewell tour.
David Pocock and Sam Warburton are just two of several world-class opensides around at the minute but McCaw, at 34 now a battle-hardened veteran of 142 caps, is still the world’s leading No 7. Carter, though injuries have seen him lose pace, still controls the game like no other from fly-half.
Yet, scarier still, there is so much more to the All Blacks than those six, with the vast majority of their squad falling into the world-class bracket.
Hooker Dane Coles, locks Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, No 8 Kieran Read, scrum-half Aaron Smith, his namesake at full-back Ben and giant wing Julian Savea would all be leading candidates to make a world XV, and there is a glimpse of an exciting long-term future in Hansen’s squad too.
Wings Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo, both just 24, tore up the Super Rugby compeition this year, while the heir apparents to McCaw and Carter, Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett, will both get the chance to showcase their talents in England.
The All Blacks are here to retain their trophy and it is going to take a monumental effort to stop them.
THE COACH: Steve Hansen
The 56-year-old Kiwi leads his country into the World Cup with an outstanding record of 42 wins and just three defeats from 47 Tests since succeeding Henry in 2012. Hansen has World Cup pedigree too. He was in charge of Wales in 2003 when they pushed New Zealand and England close before going out at the quarter-final stage. Hansen followed that job with an eight-year stint as Henry’s No 2 so knows his players and the All Blacks set-up very well.
THE CAPTAIN: Richie McCaw
Quite simply the best rugby player of this century. Overtook Brian O’Driscoll as the sport’s most capped player internationally last month having been a fixture in the All Black side since his debut as a 20-year-old in 2000. Took over as captain in May 2006 and his nine-year reign has coincided with the most dominant period in his country’s rugby history.