Wilson: Winning WC in England will be tough

JEFF WILSON
Last updated 05:00 15/06/2014
WEARY: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is expecting the test series against England to be
STRATEGIST: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

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OPINION: As one World Cup kicks off in that other football code, it's a good time to take stock of how the major nations are tracking 15 months out from rugby's own global tournament.

The All Blacks, of course, face a unique scrutiny going into a World Cup year, because as well as the need to prepare for that defining event there is also an unyielding demand to win now.

Other teams get to focus very much on next year. But, as it's always been for All Blacks rugby, with the expectations of this country there is a demand they continue winning. That's almost exacerbated by the "perfect" year in 2013. For the All Blacks it's not so much about timing their run, it's that they keep winning, keep proving they're the best and that should transform into the next World Cup.

That's all well and good, but it has its challenges, especially when you can see the direction some of the other top teams are heading.

If you look at the countries to have won a World Cup you would have to say they're all building nicely, have got stability in their coaching staff, and there's an energy about them that suggests we need to consider this could be the All Blacks' greatest ever challenge.

It is going to be very difficult to win in England. I played the World Cup there in ‘99 and it was tough just getting past the hosts in pool play. We all know what France did to us in that semifinal.

If you look now at how those other teams are tracking and think about collision courses, it's worth wondering how realistic is it for the All Blacks to continue to win and how much better can they get?

All teams have ups and downs, but I wonder was that first test of the year last week simply a case of Steve Hansen not looking to peak right now. The All Blacks are looking to expose a few players but it appears other teams have made ground on them.

It doesn't mean these rivals possess the same ability the All Blacks do, but they're becoming more consistent.

You have to admire the way Stuart Lancaster has brought his squad together, based around hard-nosed forwards, a world-class fullback, some strikepower in their backs and depth across the board.

There's also a refreshing humility and consistency which starts at the top. At home next year, they are going to be very, very difficult.

Australia are already seeing the rewards of Ewen McKenzie focusing on the environment. He's working through loyalties versus form, and looks on track with the right culture, improved performances from some players and genuine leadership from others.

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The Wallabies have a different aura now. McKenzie stood down players last year, he's picked on form this year, and you wonder if he's already thinking about how they need to be playing at the World Cup. Stephen Moore as captain brings a hard-nosed attitude. Now they're using Michael Hooper. That means he's taking a different tack which is positive.

They've also got Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau who are serious weapons.

South Africa are still likely to have the odd off-day but when they're in the right frame of mind they're dangerous. English conditions should suit them. Their pack will be damaging, set piece strong and backline direct. Their biggest challenge will be creating the right environment, with the Frans Steyn drama an indication of the challenges they face.

We've seen what the French can do randomly, and close to home they will be tough.

The All Blacks probably have the toughest task, as focused as they are on the here and now. They might be the team that has to adapt its game most.

Their biggest strength is the execution of their game plan, and because of their skillsets they make hard look easy. They can play an expansive game but there will be that fine line at the business end of a World Cup when the scoreline can be 8-7.

That experience of 2011 is going to be crucial in the All Blacks winning their first World Cup on foreign soil. Playing England four times this year could be a blessing. They may need to beat that style - not just from the hosts, but South Africa, France or even Ireland.

- Sunday Star Times

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