Oi bro, wake up.
Oi wake up!
Dick, wake up, the All Blacks' World Cup is about to start.
There wasn't much that the All Blacks could do about the first four games of their 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign. While the other pools provided drama and classic World Cup rugby which is after all the best kind of rugby, the All Blacks trudged through a World Cup pool that didn't really provide that same level of competition. The All Blacks' pool didn't really provide much to be honest.
We've all had a little whinge about the copious amounts of ridiculously dumb stories on the All Blacks from our friends in the mainstream media. We've all had a whinge about those kiwis who are stressing about the All Blacks while we've all had a whinge about the All Blacks themselves. Why? Well there just hasn't been that much to sink our teeth into about the All Blacks as they have represented Aotearoa immaculately ... off the field, spreading the good vibes as All Blacks and kiwis do.
The World Cup is rugby's holy grail and as we all know - you can be the best rugby team in the world, but you're not really the best unless you have the William Webb Ellis trophy in your cabinet. Rightfully, we put such an emphasis on the World Cup which rolls around every four years and this time around we've seen our World Cup anticipation stretch beyond the start of the World Cup up to the quarter-finals. Finally, we're at a point where we will see the All Blacks put under pressure.
France will offer some sort of challenge to the All Blacks - who knows the extent of that challenge because they are French after all. There's two sides to this with the first being how each team fronts up and executes their respective game plans. The All Blacks love to play fast rugby, a signature element of their style which has been a constant since Shag took over and they rely on the skills of their forwards to provide a point of difference to their competitors. There are obviously other teams who have forwards who can catch and pass, but the All Blacks have forwards who roam wide in conjunction with some of the most potent backline weapons in the business. There aren't many teams who have that dual-threat.
I couldn't think of a better match up for this quarter-final. Shag's influence can be seen on the field, but he also said it himself when outlined his intention to win the World Cup playing rugby the right way. Now I think it's safe to assume that the 'right way' is the opposite of the stereotypical Northern Hemisphere style where there are less tries and more penalties. The All Blacks certainly have the personnel to win a World Cup by throwing the footy around (within reason) but their first hurdle comes in the form of France who don't share that willingness to attack relentlessly. While the All Blacks' easier pool does skew these numbers slightly, the All Blacks have scored 25 tries to just 12 from France so far in this World Cup. The All Blacks have kicked five penalties and France have kicked 12. The All Blacks have scored 174 points and France have scored 120 points.
France certainly have some weapons, just far fewer weapons compared to the number of attacking weapons the All Blacks have. France could opt to throw caution to the wind, pushing the ball wide early and running it when they would usually kick for touch and compete at the line-out, do I think this would help them beat the All Blacks? No. France's best bet to beat the All Blacks will be to play up to the stereotype of European teams and slow things down, get into a grind and target the All Blacks at set-pieces. Take the points when they are offered and France could find themselves up 12-7 for example, with the pressure on the kiwis.
It would be awesome to see France have some fun and take on the All Blacks at their own game, just as it would be fun to see the All Blacks beat up France and grind their way to victory. Shag has laid his cards on the table though (or maybe he bluffed?? Oooooh), hence I see this as an epic battle of two contrasting styles.
The other side of this challenge facing the All Blacks is the stage/lights/crowd/pressure/intensity. My excitement levels peak when sport reaches this level where all the stuff on the periphery is enhanced, just as the skill level and discipline go to new heights.
Playing a World Cup final in Aotearoa certainly offered a huge stage for the All Blacks last time around. However, it's very different playing in front of a big crowd of adoring kiwis than it is to playing in Cardiff, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from France. There's no reason to think that the All Blacks won't respond positively to this and I can see guys like Nehe Milner-Skudder or Aaron Smith putting on a show, but it's hard to say for sure that everything will go swimmingly.
How will the All Blacks deal with being a few points behind with no crowd rallying behind them? They showed us how it's down in South Africa earlier this year against a Springboks team who pretty clearly tanked the Rugby Championship so it's hard to really gauge how this group will respond to adversity. Remember, adversity and the All Blacks don't know each other too well - outside of World Cups, things tend to go the way of the All Blacks as they generally earn that luck or benefit of the doubt.
It's taken four years and four games for the All Blacks to finally reach this point. I'm not nervous nah, instead I'm immensely excited to see the All Blacks deliver when it counts and right now, Sunday's game against France is all that counts.