Rugby World Cup
World Cup will be tense - but hardly full of shocks
Canon Rugby in Focus: Much of the World Cup will be as predictable as the All Blacks' line-up for their opening clash with the Springboks.
Steve Hansen names his side for the potentially important World Cup opening test against South Africa in six days and we should expect few surprises.
Hansen has said a couple of times that Anton Lienert-Brown is the form midfielder so expect him to be at second-five, with Jack Goodhue alongside.
And Hansen hasn’t run with a two-pivot game plan that sees the All Blacks play up the centre of the field so they can then split their attack only to abandon the plan now.
So Beauden Barrett will be at fullback with Richie Mo’unga at first-five. Ben Smith’s best hope of featuring against the Springboks is off the bench - but Jordie Barrett may pip him at the post.
Given the success of using Ardie Savea out wide against Tonga there should be no confusion around the loose forwards, either.
He was simply unstoppable in Hamilton and though that game should carry an asterisk as a ‘test’, it was a good chance to see how the All Blacks want to play in Japan.
It will have been noted by the likes of Rassie Erasmus, Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt, Michael Cheika and Warren Gatland, each of whom will or could face the All Blacks over the next two months.
Their teams bring their own strengths, weaknesses and game plans to the table, and it will be intriguing throughout the World Cup to see which style of play dominates.
The All Blacks’ approach is simple. Play at pace, getting over the gain line through the middle of the park and spreading the ball either side with twin threats at pivot and, of course, plenty of firepower out wide.
Which is where the rise of Sevu Reece and George Bridge has been so timely for the All Blacks.
They offer contrasting styles on the wings, yet both has a high work rate, is safe under the high ball, is quick and has an eye for the try line.
There is no doubt they will start against South Africa.
Patrick Tuipulotu has also played his way into contention after being outside the 31 before Brodie Retallick was injured.
Tweaks to his pre-game eating have been highlighted by Hansen as helping with his energy in the match, and now Tuipulotu’s size and pace are being put to good use.
He’s also not doing anything fancy. Just smashing the ball up, hitting the rucks hard and knocking blokes over in defence. Sounds like Retallick. Now the coaches just need that from Tuipulotu on a consistent basis.
I said at the top that the Springbok test was “potentially” important, and that’s because I believe the loser will still go through to the final to play the winner.
The only exception to that is England. They, New Zealand and South Africa are my top three, with Wales, Ireland and Australia each a decent chance to make the final, but not as strongly favoured as the top three.
Add to that France, who are always an unknown entity at a World Cup, and Argentina and Scotland, who are good enough to make the playoffs and possibly the semifinals, and this is, as many have said, an evenly contested tournament.
But I fear it will also be lopsided, with the gap between the best and the rest seemingly wider than it has ever been.
Tonga showed us that in Hamilton. So too, in different ways, did South Africa, Scotland and England.
The latter thrashed Italy 37-0 last weekend and, while these are just practice games, Italy have been average for a long time.
They haven’t won a Six Nations game since 2015 and have lost a staggering 85 of their 98 tests since they joined the competition in 2000.
They are yet to get out of their pool at a World Cup and with New Zealand and South Africa swimming alongside them in Japan, that’s unlikely to change.
Japan had a stunning win against the Springboks at the last World Cup, but were thrashed, 41-7, last week in a practice game where Erasmus says the Boks deliberately played without the ball at times.
Georgia were beaten 36-9 by Scotland so they’re no threat and, while Fiji are seen as the best of the Pacific Island teams, they have Australia and Wales to contend with to make the quarterfinals.
Not impossible - but not easy.
The reality is these tier two teams come to World Cups with too little rugby having been played in the intervening years.
Since the 2015 World Cup the All Blacks have played 47 tests, Tonga 21.
And yet, while it is easy to say that with more games these teams will automatically become more competitive and lift the standard of the World Cup, that may not be the case.
Just look at Italy. Despite 19 years in the Six Nations their results suggest they are no better now than they were before they joined that competition.
Their magnificent skipper, Sergio Parisse, has played 140 tests and lost 105 of them. Richie McCaw won 26 more tests than Parisse has lost.
So, just as the All Blacks team to play South Africa in their World Cup opener is predictable, so too is the tournament itself.
It will be tight, tense and thrilling at the top, but the best of the rest will still, sadly, be a long way off the pace.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.