The business end of the Rugby World Cup is rapidly approaching, so it is time to study two of the main protagonists, New Zealand and Australia. This pair are expected to meet in one of the semi-finals, although South Africa may disagree, not least because - presuming they overcome Samoa this morning - they come up against New Zealand on the way to the last four. But for the purposes of this analysis, the focus has to be on the Wallabies and the All Blacks.
There is a mystique about the All Blacks. They have traditionally been cloaked in an aura of invincibility, although that has dimmed of late. Indeed, since winning the inaugural Rugby World Cup, they have disappointed, flattering to deceive, most notably in the 1995 tournament, which they had entered as the best side, in terms of squad strength and rugby played. Nevertheless they contrived to lose to South Africa in the final, which continues to perplex those who witnessed that match. Again, in 1999, they were to be disappointed by France in one of the all-time great Test matches, the thunderous semi-final at Twickenham.
Coming into this year, yet again they are seen to be one of the favourites alongside England. Although defeated by England in the summer, they still overcame South Africa and Australia to win the Tri-Nations competition, a triumph which demonstrated that the team were continuing to develop. They are now recognised as the most potent attacking side in the competition.
This development has called for a strong selection policy and the coach, John Mitchell, has been very tough in this area, leaving behind former favourites such as Christian Cullen, Andrew Mehrtens, Anton Oliver and Taine Randell, all of whom played Super 12 this year. Brave selection indeed, but this has unleashed on the world a team committed to a non-stop game of pace, incision, and inventiveness, all developed to overcome today's well-organised defences. Thus, the ball is brought back into play from set-pieces and recycled at rucks at pace to release some very young backs.
Sadly, Jonah Lomu is unavailable through illness, but the free-scoring Joe Rokocoko is aspiring to take over his mantle. Rokocoko, his fellow wing Doug Howlett and the full-back, Mils Muliaina, have become a very dangerous attacking back three, especially deadly when they find the ball in their hands following turnovers or misguided kicks. We recently saw an outstanding exposition of their handling skills in the pouring rain as they overran Tonga, racking up 91 points, which included 13 tries.
Such games, however, while assisting in the development of their squad, will be a long way short of the pressure they will need to play under as the tournament progresses. A projected quarter-final game against South Africa followed by a semi-final showdown against Australia will certainly challenge their credentials. We will then discover whether their free-running youngsters can stand the intensity of a full-blown Test match. The possible loss of the centre Tana Umaga and his experience could well leave them exposed.
They may also have to fit in a place kicker, since Carlos Spencer is unreliable in this crucial respect. It may therefore necessitate finding a place in the centre for Daniel Carter, which will cause some disruption to the increasingly established pairing of Aaron Mauger and Umaga. His goal-kicking apart, however, Spencer has become a must at No 10. Discarded in the past, he is now more responsible in directing play, but still uniquely creative in launching attacks, either through the hand or kicking.
If there are any misgivings, injury-induced or otherwise, regarding the All Blacks back line, it is up front where the biggest questions are raised. They have been groomed in the fast-moving Super 12 game, but that particular tournament is not the best preparation for Test rugby, which tends to be played, especially by England, France and South Africa, at a slower pace, while the forward challenge is fought out. Notwithstanding the prowess of their lock forwards Chris Jack and Ali Williams, the New Zealand front five, as a unit, have a lot to prove under this pressure.
There are reservations in the back row, too. Whereas Ritchie McCaw or Marty Holah at open side will usually give them an edge, their No 8, Jerry Collins, looks a one-dimensional player. He may be strong in taking the ball forward, but he lacks the all-round skills usually required for this key, game-controlling position. As for their captain, Reuben Thorne, over on the blind side, he is more of a hard-working rather than an inspirational player.
There may therefore be some chinks in their armour, which could well be exposed at some point in their now extremely challenging route to the final. However, they are strong contenders for the William Webb Ellis trophy. This is a young team, playing exciting football, which continues to find itself and improve; and winning the Tri-Nations gave them a good base and confidence. So, subject to the South African hurdle, New Zealand will play the holders, Australia, in the semi-finals.
Whereas New Zealand have been decisive in selection and style of play, Australia seem to have been treading water since the last World Cup and the subsequent victory over the Lions. Results have not been to the usual high level since Eddie Jones took over the coaching role. It is difficult to see whether Australian rugby has gone forward.
The front five continue to be a well-advertised weakness, thus leaving scrums open to exploitation, especially under pressure, and delivering only slow ball. In the back row, Australia play two very able open-side forwards, George Smith and David Croft, but this leaves them short of physical presence and firepower, accentuated by the fact that the promising David Lyons is not a full-blooded replacement for the ball-carrying No 8, Toutai Kefu, who is absent through injury.
Behind the pack a lot will depend on the well established half-back partnership of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham. But again, outside these two, the Australians are having problems with the centre pairing. They suffer, as do others, with the need to include an established goal-kicker, which has thus left their "boot-boy'' and natural No 10, Elton Flatley, having to master the role of inside centre.
Further out, Australia have been left to select from unusual riches, with the former rugby league players Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri and Mat Rogers competing with old favourites Joe Roff, Chris Latham, Stirling Mortlock and Matt Burke. It all seems very late in the day to be left with these selection issues. Nevertheless, if the forwards can hold up in the set-pieces Australia might still deliver, given the talent of these running backs.
With the quarter-finals in prospect it is intriguing, therefore, to compare the challenges facing these closest of rivals. New Zealand have been decisive in putting together a formidable attacking unit. However, the World Cup has not yet provided them with a real challenge because, with all due respect to Wales, the All Blacks are playing in one of the easier pools. They will hope to resolve their injury problems soon, in the light of the major challenge which looms, namely South Africa. New Zealand will look to establish themselves in this one-off game, when the Springboks will be formidable, not least with the physical challenge they will bring to the tie.
On the other hand, Australia have been somewhat nebulous in establishing their team and tactics. The opportunity is still there to do so in their final pool game against Ireland, and - unless they lose that match - in a quarter-final against the winners of this morning's Scotland-Fiji tie.
Surely the coach Jones will be impelled by the probable approaching meeting with their rivals from across the Tasman Sea to bring an overdue focus to his outstanding selection issues, if not to his game plan.
Jack Rowell, Bath's director of rugby, coached England from 1995-97.Reuse content