New Zealand
New Zealand train in Japan. Image Credit: AFP

Tokyo: As many as six teams could win this year’s World Cup, double the number of contenders four years ago, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said on Friday ahead of his side’s opening clash with South Africa, one of the tournament’s other favourites.

The All Blacks’ decade-long reign at the top of the world rankings came to an end in recent weeks, first losing the mantle to 2019 Six Nations winners Wales and then Ireland, who won the northern hemisphere’s premier annual tournament the year before.

South Africa and Australia both finished ahead of New Zealand in this year’s Rugby Championship makes this the most open World Cup since the tournament began in 1987.

“They are always competitive — it always makes me chuckle when I hear this team can’t win and this team is going to win. But right now you’ve got a number of sides that are capable of winning it because they’ve go the talent in their group,” Hansen said.

“There’s probably more in this tournament than normal, probably in the last one there was two or three, this one there’s five or six which is great for rugby.”

New Zealand, winners of the last two tournaments, have the ability to get the job done for a third successive time, Hansen said, expecting a “tight, titanic struggle” up front against the physical Springboks in Saturday’s Pool B opener.

No more than two points have separated the sides in their last four meetings, with the most recent 16-16 draw in Wellington in July helping South Africa towards their first Rugby Championship title in a decade.

New Zealand had hammered South Africa by a record 57-0 in the meeting before that in 2017 and Hansen credited the improvements his opposite number Rassie Erasmus has made in their rival’s defence and fitness since taking charge last year.

Hansen retained Richie Mo’unga at fly-half for the game, making Beauden Barrett’s move to fullback a more permanent one and he backed the Canterbury Crusaders’ playmaker to follow in the footsteps of some All Black greats in his World Cup debut.

“He plays some scintillating rugby at times, he’s very good with ball in hand, he’s got pace, a good kicking game, great vision so he’s got all the attributes to be a wonderful, wonderful player,” Hansen said.

A fast and furious Fiji stand poised to derail Australia’s campaign unless Michael Cheika’s side can avoid their self-sabotaging tendency to cough up possession, according to former Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer.

A loss to the Fijians in the Sapporo opener on Saturday may not be terminal for Australia’s hopes of reaching the knockout rounds but it would place them under huge pressure to beat Six Nations champions Wales in their second Pool D game.

Under New Zealander coach John McKee, Fiji enter the World Cup the pick of the Pacific nations and confident of producing an early boilover as they look to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2007.

Australia, however, have blown hot and cold in the lead-up to Japan, thrashing the All Blacks 47-26 in Perth before suffering a humiliating 36-0 defeat away to the world champions two weeks later.

“Fiji is not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination,” Dwyer, who guided Australia to its maiden World Cup triumph in 1991, said.

“We dropped that much ball in the last game against New Zealand. Against Fiji, if we drop that much ball, they will hurt us.

“Security of possession is tantamount. If you drop the ball, throw long passes, and passes behind a player which we’ve been guilty of, then you’re in trouble. I mean, they can score a try in the blink of an eye.” Cheika has retained most of the starting side that beat New Zealand in Perth for the Fiji clash, but restored David Pocock into the back row alongside flanker-captain Michael Hooper.

Catch the matches:

Pool stages:

On Saturday

Australia v Fiji, 8.45am

France v Argentina, 11.15am

New Zealand v South Africa, 1.45pm

All matches broadcast on BeIN Sports