Dubai: Sometimes being the best is not the best. As New Zealand go into the 2019 Rugby World Cup as runaway favourites to lift the trophy for a third consecutive time, it seems not all is well with the All Blacks.
Speaking on the sides of a promotional event for the Dubai Sevens, retired Scotland international Scott Hastings believes everyone will be gunning for the prized scalp of the New Zealanders, while former All Black Mils Muliaina fears many of the current crop do not embrace the honour of representing their country like they did in his time.
New Zealand are going for a ‘three-peat’ in Japan when the tournament kicks off in Tokyo on September 20, having won the Webb Ellis trophy on home turf in 2011 and then in England in 2015. But despite their pedigree, it may not be as clear cut as some think.
“New Zealand go in as favourites and back-to-back champions. Everyone realises they are the team to beat. They are the No. 1 team in the world in terms of talent. But then you throw into the mix South Africa — who drew against the All Blacks in July — plus Australia, who defeated them recently. You have England, who are looking powerful under Eddie Jones. You’ve got Ireland as the No. 1 team in the world under a fantastic coach Joel Schmidt. you’ve got Wales with Warren Gatland. A very difficult team to play against … The list goes on. France can cause and upset; Argentina can cause an upset. We saw what Japan did by defeating South Africa four years ago. There is no reason to say they can’t do that again. Or one of the Pacific teams such as Fiji, for example.”
Hastings also holds out hope for his old side Scotland, who can cause an upset on their day.
“The are magical and mercurial. You never know just what you will get but they will cause a few upsets.”
Muliaina, who notched up 100 caps for the All Blacks, knows that the favourites tag can sometimes be a hindrance, and he fears that this may be detrimental to the current crop of New Zealanders, given the pressure of holding on to their place in the team and the level of expectations back home.
“We saw what Japan did to South Africa,” he said. “The coaches will all be looking at the underdogs. One little slip up and — even if you make it out of the group stages — you are up against tougher opponents in the knockout stages. If you look at the pressure on the All Blacks, one slip against South Africa in their opening game then they could be facing Ireland in the quarter-finals and it is all uphill from there. It is cut-throat all the way.
“It is the most hotly contested World Cup ever in my opinion and, when you look at the All Blacks, maybe there are some players who don’t quite get what it means to play for that jersey.
“They have to soak up that pressure and know what it means. You have to perform in every single game because that is what is expected. It cannot be taken for granted.
“If New Zealand don’t come home with the cup, usually the government is out. That is what is means to this nation.
“They have made a rod for their own back. It is something that has really hindered us for the past few decades. Before we won the last two times, you could see that it hurt everyone involved and it had a severe impact on the team for the following years.
“There is the same expectation this time around, and to come up short will really hurt them again.
“Some guys do not embrace that expectation. They run away from it and that is wrong. They need to step up and know they are the best. Prove it, so to speak. You do not become the favourites without merit. But these guys need to embrace that and fulfil those expectations.”
New Zealand play their first game against South Africa on September 21, one day after the curtain-raiser between hosts Japan and Russia.