Richie McCaw and Graham Henry face the music after not making the 2007 World Cup semi-finals

Sean FitzPatrick v Neil De Kock. Who will you agree with?

Every four years New Zealand are installed as odds-on favourites to win the World Cup, and for the last five of the six global tournaments held they have done a Devon Loch and come crashing to earth.

It’s been 24 years since David Kirk’s All Blacks swept all before them to clinch the inaugural World Cup on New Zealand soil. In 2007 they failed to even make the semi-finals for the first time, defeat to France leaving Richie McCaw and Graham Henry (above) struggling for words.

With the country hosting the event again this year, there are fervent hopes that McCaw’s side will repeat the 1987 triumph.

However, the draw means they appear destined to meet reigning world champions South Africa in the 2011 semi-finals. This has raised questions over whether the All Blacks, exceptional though they look from this distance, will be able to handle the pressure of huge home expectation, and also see off the Springboks, who are chasing back-to-back World Cups.

Here Sean Fitzpatrick, who was part of the victorious 1987 All Blacks side, explains why New Zealand are the real deal this time, while ex-Springbok scrum-half Neil de Kock argues that South Africa are ready to spring a deadly ambush.

Read their viewpoints and then vote in our poll…

THE All Blacks have been odds-on favourites for every World Cup going back to the inaugural tournament in 1987. But every time since, someone has knocked them off the pedestal to become world champions. With New Zealand hosting the tournament again, this is their big chance to reclaim the trophy – but can they handle the pressure?

My hunch is that the pressure will be ten-fold what it was in France four years ago and that once more New Zealand could implode under the weight of it. They are also in the same half of the draw as South Africa and if results go as expected they will meet in the semi-finals. It’s easy to see the All Blacks as clear favourites, but as the reality of a South Africa versus New Zealand semi comes closer, the ability and experience within the Bok ranks will come into sharper focus and the odds will get narrower. How the All Blacks react to the heat being turned up at home is what interests me – and the Boks will certainly bring the pressure!

The scrum-half won ten Springbok caps. Having played for the Stormers and Western Province, he joined Saracens in 2006, captained the team in 2007-08 and helped them win the Aviva Premiership last season.

They aren’t world champions by chance. Fourie du Preez is the best scrum-half in the world and the quality of his kicking is a big part of the kick-chase game they will employ. They won’t use this tactic alone, but they’re accomplished at smothering other teams and not allowing them to play.

Morné Steyn has always played well at fly-half in partnership with du Preez, and the Springbok half-backs are a settled combination, which is what you want. The centre partnership of Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie is also very powerful, and before we even look at the pack there is evidence of quality and experience. The All Blacks have a huge incentive for winning in front of their own fans, but no one should underestimate what a massive motivation it is for the Springboks to become the first side in history to retain the World Cup.

They have a proud record, winning two finals, so they have the upper hand over New Zealand in terms of results. I know just how much the likes of John Smit and Victor Matfield want to achieve back-to-back World Cups.

It’s an amazing All Black team, but South Africa will be working out ways to nullify their multiple threats and to get at Dan Carter. They have an inner belief against New Zealand that no other side has.

That is why Smit needs to lead from the front. He’s a talismanic player and a world-class captain, and there’s nothing to be gained from chopping and changing now, despite Bismarck du Plessis making a strong claim for the No 2 shirt. The
Boks can have the best of both worlds, and they should start with John and bring Bismarck on as an impact player.

The Tri-Nations is important because every team that has won a World Cup has had good results going into it, and I’d like to see the Boks know what they want to do tactically. They need to perform well, especially in the last couple of games in South Africa when they need the momentum going into the tournament of beating Australia and New Zealand.

I’M not convinced that any New Zealand side has choked in a World Cup, they have simply come up against teams, or factors, that were exceptional on the day. Knockout rugby means all teams, the All Blacks included, are subject to injuries, referees and weather that can change the outcome of any game.

It will take a very good side to beat New Zealand this year, and they’ll have to play the game of their lives to do it. Sure, the pressure will be on, especially at home, but the expectations on the All Blacks are always huge and after 2007 the senior players at the core of this squad have a much better knowledge of how to deal with it.

Between 1986 and 1997, the hooker played 92 Test matches for the All Blacks, scored 12 tries and won the inaugural World Cup in 1987. He also led the team a then record 51 times from 1992 until his retirement due to a knee injury in 1997.

New Zealand are fit, strong, structured and clinical, and in Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read they have three of the world’s best players. In fact, they have match-winners from one to 22, and they’re also peaking at the right time.

That is a long list of good reasons to expect them to win the World Cup and, unlike last time, it’s almost impossible to find any influential voices in New Zealand who are critical of what the All Blacks have done over the past two years under the guidance of Graham Henry.

In the build-up to the 2007 tournament in France I was part of a minority who were uncomfortable with the rotation within the All Black camp and the conditioning programme, and we questioned why Henry was trying to protect players. This time there has been no repeat, because not only has Henry listened but a lot of the senior players have grown in stature.

Henry has realised that you cannot wrap these guys in cotton wool and that the nature of rugby is that players need to be out in the white heat of competition.

McCaw also has much more input than before as captain, and the relationship between him and the head coach is much better than it was four years ago. The same applies to other senior players like Mils Muliaina and Brad Thorn, who share the leadership responsibilities.

McCaw’s injury at the start of the Super 15 gave him a well-earned rest and although he’s hugely important to the All Blacks, at least Henry knows he can call on his Crusaders understudy, Matt Todd, to do a job at openside if needs be.

A replacement for Carter is the biggest issue because every World Cup-winning team has had an exceptional fly-half. Whether it’s Grant Fox in 1987, Michael Lynagh in 1991, Joel Stransky in 1995, Steve Larkham in 1999, Jonny Wilkinson in 2003 or Butch James in 2007, all of them were at the heart of what made their teams tick – and stayed fit throughout.

That’s why all Kiwis will be holding their breath during the Tri-Nations every time Carter gets the ball. Over the years he has proved to be pretty durable, but if the worst happens there’s Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade waiting on the sidelines. Slade did well when he came on for Cruden after Carter was ruled out of one of the Tests against Australia last season.

But, hopefully, the All Blacks won’t need to call on a back-up No 10.

This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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