The All Blacks Are Favourites But...

Willem, like William but just a bit funkier.

Willem, like William but just a bit funkier.

The All Blacks are the favourites to return to their homeland with the William Web Ellis trophy. One look at the squad named by Shag should tell you everything you need to know, in fact, I'll take this time to remind you to look at the squad named by Shag and not just those players like Waisake Naholo and Tawera Kerr-Barlow who were on the selection bubble. Take a look at the squad and see McCaw, Read, Kaino, Rettalick, Nonu, Carter, Smith, Smith and Smith - yup, they're favourites.

But the All Blacks are also favourites because we don't really know what to expect from the other major countries. While the group of All Blacks named above and a few more players were certainties for this World Cup, the likes of England, France, South Africa and Australia didn't quite have that luxury.

England, France, South Africa and Australia are the teams who will compete for this World Cup with the All Blacks. And while the uncertainty around what these teams might serve up at the World Cup helps makes the All Blacks favourites, it also means that we have to look at these teams with sense of caution because, well, who knows what they'll serve up. 

I have talked about the Wallabies and uncertainty surrounding their top 22-man squad before and this is the perfect place to bring it up again. While the All Blacks know who will fill key positions in big games, Michael Cheika must still decide between Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper for example. Will Genia looks like he's got the inside running to start should he be healthy, but Nick Phipps is in the mix as well. Matt Giteau or Matt Toomua? David Pocock and Michael Hooper or one of them coming off the bench? How will Will Skelton be used? 

We simply won't know the Wallabies' best 22 until it's rolled out in front of us, so it's extremely difficult to try and predict whether the Wallabies will pose a threat or not quite be good enough.

There is some certainty around England in that they are playing at home and will rise to the occasion. But to what extent? I'm not sure. England also have competition for starting positions with Owen Farrell returning from injury to put pressure on George Ford as the starting first-five but with England, they only constant about their rugby team in recent times is the rotating cast of players used.

Henry Slade and Sam Burgess both have one cap to their name with both of them being named as midfielders for England. Who knows how England's midfield will look with these newbies joining Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph in the WC squad -  Barritt and Joseph have been named to play for the first time ever together against Ireland this weekend.

Who knows how England's forwards will go at the WC with Dylan Hartley not selected after being suspended and Steffon Armitage, arguably England's best loose-forward once again ignored as he plays in France. There's no Manu Tuilagi either but England's uncertainty is compounded by the fact that despite the selection headaches, they are still pretty good on paper - good enough to rally with home support. 

If there's one thing about the French, it's how unpredictable they are. There's no real need to go into details about the squad because France could challenge the All Blacks one day and then get beat by 30 the next. 

The most interesting team of all though is South Africa. I suspect many people don't really see South Africa as that great a threat when you look at their form from the Rugby Championship where they comically slipped up against Australia in Brisbane before repeating that dose in South Africa against the All Blacks where they gave the game away at the end. They then lost to Argentina and then beat Argentina in Argentina, go figure.

We've seen how good players like Jessie Kriel, Willie le Roux and Damian de Allende can be and with Morne Steyn unlikely to see much game time this WC, I'd suggest that the Springboks will take on a different dimension. They have the backs to run the footy without Steyn sitting in the pocket, kicking the ball back to the opposition with Pat Lambie and Handre Pollard both offering the full spectrum in terms of first-five play.

Confusing matters is the return of Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen. Alberts didn't feature in a Springboks jersey this year until playing in Buenos Aires against Argentina while Vermeulen should line up in the Boks' first game against Japan. These two add some freakish size and power to a Springboks forward pack which already has plenty of that thanks to Schalk Burger and Fracnois Louw.

This is one of the more well-balance Springboks squads I've seen in a long time and let's not forget where this WC will be played; England. That means that you need a forward pack who can dominate the physical contests around the ruck, while competing for opposition ball and winning your own ball at set-piece time. Their group of loose-forwards is beastly, they have locks who are arguably better than the All Blacks' except Brodie Rettalick (Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager) and let's not overlook their front-row either which goes alright with the du Plessis brothers and The Beast himself.

The Springboks have generally had a good forward pack, but they now have some youth in their backline to the point where should Jean de Villiers miss games thanks to injury, Kriel and de Allende are more than capable replacements.

All this is very exciting and I'd be paying close attention to what the Wallabies and England do in the weeks leading up to the WC as they have the most selection riddles to solve. Regardless, the All Blacks are the favourites but it's difficult to judge the other contenders and gauge where they are at when we either don't know who will take the field or in the Springboks' case just haven't seen them at full strength/really caring about the result (I don't believe they were going all out during the RC). We've all seen what the French can do as well.