All Blacks remain a world apart... or are they?

The All Blacks look awesome right now, but how will they do at the 2007 world cup? Chris Hewett poses the questions (and offers a few answers) after an intriguing autumn of international rugby
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hang on just a minute. For the All Blacks - Lion-slayers, Tri-Nations champions, Bledisloe Cup holders and Grand Slammers to boot - the difficult bit starts here. Everyone knows how hot they are between World Cup tournaments, but one glance at the history book tells us how flaky they can be during them. They feel pressure like everyone else, and two of their three most important players, the captain Tana Umaga and the flanker Richie McCaw, are by no means certain to be in France in 21 months' time, given the age of the former and the injury record of the latter. There is many a slip between cup and lip, especially when the cup is of the Webb Ellis variety.

Even so...

OK, OK. They're terrific. In fact, they would have two sides in the last four if the competition was played now and they were allowed to enter one from the North Island and another from the South. They have a couple of props in Tony Woodcock and Carl Hayman who will be as good, if not better, than Craig Dowd and Olo Brown; their loose forwards are not obviously worse than the finest back-row combinations of the past, which automatically makes them special; their attacking runners are both frighteningly quick and supremely skilful. Oh yes, they have Daniel Carter, too.

Back to the first question, then. Who'll finish second?

Assuming New Zealand get to the final next time - something they have not managed since 1995, remember - only three teams are obviously equipped to be there with them. South Africa, because their physicality will carry them through many a torrid conflict and because their clever coach, Jake White, will use the humiliation of their 2003 campaign as positive therapy; France, not simply because they will have home advantage, but also because they are building a truly formidable squad of players and can, on their day, run rings round anyone; and England. Dear old England.

Oh, come off it.

Honestly. The reigning champions are not without their problems, lack of midfield dynamism being the most obvious of them, but as they old saying goes: forwards decide who wins a game of rugby, the backs decide by how many. England have a vintage pack under construction, and the manner of the heavy mob's performance against the All Blacks at Twickenham underlined their potential. The New Zealanders were seriously relieved to emerge from that encounter with their Grand Slam ambitions intact, and the longer they avoid the red rose army in France, the better they will like it.

So who stood out among the ugly mugs?

Most of them, at one point or another. Andrew Sheridan, the new behemoth of the front-row union, brought his wrecking-ball of a physique to bear on the Wallaby scrum and demolished it. If he found Hayman more of a handful seven days later, he will only have learnt from the experience. Steve Thompson rediscovered his appetite for the hurly-burly and played magnificently; Danny Grewcock was at his best in the "nobody loves me and I don't care" role; Martin Corry said all the right things at all the right times and confirmed his value as a leader of men. Steve Borthwick and Pat Sanderson were revelations - there can be no doubt now that both are Test-class forwards - while Lewis Moody, for all his indiscipline, energised England in the loose exchanges. Andy Robinson will stand by him, and rightly so.

But Robinson still has work to do up front, surely?

Very much so. Phil Vickery, the old Gloucester warhorse, may not get to 2007 in one piece, so the man in charge needs to make a call. Does he rehabilitate Julian White in the hope of grafting a few mod cons on to his Jurassic game, or does he tell Matt Stevens that the tight-head berth is his in the belief that regular Test rugby will bring out the warrior in him? Stevens has all the skills - more skills, indeed, than any self-respecting prop should decently possess - but does he have the fire in the belly? The last thing England need is a pacifist in the front row. Australia had a couple of them during the autumn, and look where that got them.

What about the backs?

Ah, now we come down to it. England's first vegetarian coach was perfectly happy with the manner and scale of the victory over the Wallabies, given that defeat would have had the more impatient pundits calling for his head on a bed of brown rice, but the failure to score more than a single maul-over try against an All Black side shorn of at least one man for much of the second half was not a cause for celebration.

They put five tries past Samoa, didn't they?

Indeed. But the first-half display was pretty shoddy on the creativity front and that 40-minute trudge made it abundantly clear that for all his virtues as a ball-carrying outside centre, Mike Tindall is nobody's idea of an inside centre. Unless Robinson backs Olly Barkley to tighten up his defensive game, England simply do not have a No 12 with the hands and feet of an outside-half. Jonny Wilkinson might do a job there, but even if the poor soul got himself properly fit, his lack of pace would be a worry. One answer might be to shift Josh Lewsey up from full-back. He rarely misses a tackle, and as he started his professional career as a stand-off, he should know how to manage a game.

It sounds like a case of "Oh for a Yannick Jauzion".

Too right. Jauzion is probably the best centre in the world right now - and yes, that includes the All Black midfielders, although we did not have the privilege of watching the injured Luke McAlister weave his web. The Tricolores came through the autumn unbeaten, which was unusual for a side who traditionally put Christmas behind them before they bother to start playing, and they did it without the likes of Christophe Dominici, Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy. The new generation of trailblazing talents - Florian Fritz, Dimitri Szarzewski, Yannick Nyanga - and the returns to duty of Aurélien Rougerie and Thomas Castaignède were unqualified successes. The French are well on track for 2007.

Where does all this leave the Celts?

Up a gum tree. Wales, their weakness in depth exposed by the absence of a fistful of Lions, would have been in one hell of a state had they not beaten the Wallabies in the last round of matches. As it turned out, they did beat them, albeit on their backsides, and the victory will restore some self-belief ahead of the Six Nations visit to Twickenham in February. The Red Dragonhood are highly gifted - some of their forwards, most notably Martyn Williams and Michael Owen, pass the ball more cleverly than most of England's backs - but they spend too much time under the cosh. Ireland and Scotland are in a similar position, but without the skill. Courage and commitment will spare them the worst embarrassments in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, but on the most recent evidence, neither are in a position to threaten the top half of the table.

Does this mean the 2007 World Cup will be contested by the usual suspects?

Probably, although Australia, finalists in three of the six tournaments and semi-finalists in two others, are struggling for forward personnel. George Gregan, their captain, is under a lot of heat (although he would still be a world-beater behind a decent pack) and there is no guarantee that their excellent coach, Eddie Jones, will survive the recent beatings. Their wonderful back-rowers, George Smith and Phil Waugh, will be together in France, but unless they find themselves some props, they are dead meat.

So who would replace them in the Big Five?

Wales, if they can beef up their forward act. The more likely scenario, however, has Argentina moving up through the ranks. Powerful as ever up front, the Pumas have now developed some footballing talent through the good offices of the World Sevens circuit. If Argentinian rugby was fully professionalised and the Test team had a fixture list worthy of the name, the old certainties would not survive a season.

Chris Hewett's England team for the 2007 World Cup

15 Tom Voyce (Wasps)

14 Mark Cueto (Sale)

13 James Simpson-Daniel (Glouc)

12 Josh Lewsey (Wasps)

11 Tom Varndell (Leicester)

10 Charlie Hodgson (Sale)

9 Harry Ellis (Leicester)

1 Andrew Sheridan (Sale)

2 Steve Thompson (Northampton)

3 Matt Stevens (Bath)

4 Danny Grewcock (Bath)

5 Steve Borthwick (Bath)

6 Pat Sanderson (Worcester)

7 Lewis Moody (Leicester)

8 Martin Corry (Leicester, capt)