World Cup preview: Forget about a Red Rose defence, it's looking All Black and Bleu

New Zealand must endure the bruising weight of expectation once again, which may play into the hands of the hosts. By Tim Glover
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The gambler who put £90,000 on New Zealand at 4-9 to win the World Cup would possibly have seen it more as a blue-chip investment than a fun bet. After all, the All Blacks are worthy favourites even if the odds, which were promptly cut to 2-5, are not so much unattractive as uglier than the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

As Daniel Carter, arguably the most complete player on the planet, pointed out, en route to a training camp in Napoleon's old stamping ground, Corsica: "The preparation we have put into this is immense. It has been an ongoing process for a couple of years and we have tried things that no other teams have ever tried or thought of trying. That gives us real self-belief. We know the kind of rugby we are capable of playing and we intend to make an impression from the start."

The All Blacks are not unbeatable – Australia defeated them in Melbourne in the Tri-Nations and South Africa can usually be relied upon to give them merry hell – but by some distance they remain the team to beat. They not only have the best XV, they have the best squad, which means they can field two different outfits and the second-choice one would still be too good for many countries. This can give New Zealand a decisive edge.

Famously, the All Blacks have failed to deliver on the grandest stage. They hosted – some of it was in Australia – and won the inaugural World Cup in 1987 when anything less would have been deemed a national disaster, but then New Zealanders, from the government down, believe they have a divine right to the Webb Ellis Cup every time it is up for grabs.

In Auckland 20 years ago, when the game was amateur and the World Cup small beer, David Kirk captained the All Blacks to victory over France in the final. One of sport's great mysteries is why New Zealand have not won it since, especially as Australia, who do not regard rugby union as their raison d'être, have won it twice, in 1991 and 1999.

The first time, the Wallabies beat a tactically inept England in the final at Twickenham. Eight years later they suffocated France in Cardiff. The semis that year were held at Twickenham, where the All Blacks, Jonah Lomu and all, were shredded by an astonishing performance from France.

That defeat almost disembowelled New Zealand, as a country not just a rugby nation. Another crushing depression fell over the Land of the Long White Cloud in 2003 when, in another semi, they were subdued by Australia, who then lost to England in extra time of the final in Sydney.

Representing a breakthrough by the northern hemisphere, it was a great result but no great surprise. England were No 1 in the world rankings, and in the build-up they beat New Zealand and Australia in the southern hemisphere. By contrast, in their past 16 away games England have beaten Italy in Rome – that's it.

Four years ago, the Red Rose brigade had a number of players who would have walked intoa world XV; not any more.No country has successfully defended the World Cup, and England are not expected to be the first, so the pressure on their coach, Brian Ashton, while substantial, is not as anvil-heavy as it was on Clive Woodward.

Ashton may have flirted with the exciting young Rosebuds who cut France to the quick in the Six Nations, but clearly it wasn't a serious date. He has gone for tons of experience, a decision he may regret, and England's confusion is highlighted by the inclusion of Andy Farrell.

It was Ashton's predecessor, Andy Robinson, who thought the rugby league legend would be a big asset and the Rugby Football Union voted 11-2 to bankroll Farrell's move south. It has become one of the most controversial moves in the game's history, almost as divisive as the north-south split that led to the formation of rugby league more than 100 years ago.

Since England's victory over Les Bleus at Twickenham in March, France's progress chart has moved north and England's south. England lost both their warm-up games to the French and could not breach the blue line on either occasion. Coaches swear blind that defence is key to winning a World Cup, pointing out that finals are invariably won on kicks – do not underestimate the drop goal – rather than tries. When Australia won in 1999 they conceded one try in the entire tournament – a bonus point for guessing Juan Grobler of the United States.

England's defence isn't bad, they restricted France to one try in Marseilles and they will still be hard to beat, but it was a comment from Simon Shaw that was the most telling. "We're one-dimensional. We have to start building a relationship between the pack and the backs because there's very little interplay. We take the ball up, then they take it up. We're not doing much else."

The imbalance in the competition, meaning that it is fairly straightforward to predict the quarter-finalists, gives the home nations a shot at reaching the knock-out stage.

In Pool A, England, who take on Nigel Melville's USA next Saturday, have a more pressing engagement with South Africa in Paris the following Friday but even that isn't do or die, for in the quarter-finals the runners-up will meet, in all probability, Australia or Wales. Wales, beset by a row over money and looking even more dishevelled than England, meet the Wallabies in Cardiff on 15 September.

How come, you may wonder, Wales have home advantage in a tournament hosted by France? The French, who were bidding against England to stage this World Cup, did a bit of horsetrading to secure votes. They were so successful that only one country, Canada, voted for England, who at least would have had all the games in one country. And there would not have been any restrictions, as there are in France, on alcohol sponsors.

The situation is almost as crazy as the TV deal that sees ITV, who traditionally have trouble distinguishing between a rugby ball and an Easter egg, with the big picture. It goes back to the 1997 bidding, when the BBC thought they had a clear field. They did. ITV were enticed to make a token bid and the BBC, with breathtaking arrogance, overplayed their hand and lost the pot.

Scotland, who like Wales also took the French euro, meet New Zealand at Murrayfield in Pool C and have a dilemma. Six days later they play Italy in St Etienne in what is arguably the key match for the Scots. Dare they play their best XV against the All Blacks and risk missing the runners-up spot and a place in the last eight?

Realistically only three teams have a decent chance of upsetting New Zealand's obsession with the Holy Grail: South Africa, Australia and France. There was no shame attached when the All Blacks lost 15-12 to the Springboks (a Joel Stransky drop goal) in the final at Johannesburg in 1995. It was written in the stars from the moment Nelson Mandela sported the No 6 jersey presented to him by the Boks skipper François Pienaar.

The Boks have forward power and a match-winner on the wing in Bryan Habana but their back play, despite input from Eddie Jones, still looks predictable and laboured. The Wallabies, who would have beaten the Boks in Cape Town in the Tri-Nations but for a late drop goal, have no fear of the haka or the All Blacks. It stems from the familiarity of living cheek by jowl, well almost, with their neighbours.

That leaves France. If all goes according to plan they will meet New Zealand in the final in Paris on 20 October. Les Bleus are in Pool D for "death", but it is Ireland and Argentina who face the last rites. France, who open the World Cup against the Pumas in Paris on Friday, should have a relatively easy quarter-final against Scotland or Italy.

Sébastien Chabal, the hirsute warrior in the back row, says France have "30 Zinedine Zidanes", a curious statement, since if the coach, Bernard Laporte, has instilled anything into a notoriously temperamental Tricolore psyche it is discipline. In 2003 they were strongly fancied to beat England in the semis but lost their heads and lost 24-7, Jonny Wilkinson landing five penalties and three drop goals. Laporte is determined it will not happen again, and in an impressive build-up, the English and Welsh players were struck by one thing: verbal provocation that would usually induce penalties against the French drew a blank. Zidanes they were not.

There is another difference. "It was a huge event when France won the football in 1998," Chabal said. "There were 10 million supporters in Paris and it was unbelievable. If we can do the same we will have the support behind us. It is good for our heads and our confidence. We are fit and we look good on the pitch but we will have to play the games to know the truth."

The punter who put £90,000 on the All Blacks to win £40,000 may be on to a good thing, but if he's smart he will hedge his bet. The hosts look good value.

Six to watch at No 10

Daniel Carter (New Zealand)

The world's number one No 10, who destroyed the Lions in 2005. Get Carter? Even Richie McCaw, the All Blacks' Captain Fantastic, would be hard pushed.

Frederic Michalak (France)

Prodigy returning from injury. A flop four years ago, he is now showing signs of a cooler head. Could be the golden key to the host nation's Cup quest.

Jonny Wilkinson (England)

From World Cup winner to case study in 'The Lancet'. Touch wood, he seems to be free from injury and his goalkicking is still pivotal to the Red Rose cause.

Butch James (South Africa)

Tough customer has recovered from operations on both knees. Is he the right link between power pack and back line that often fails to deliver?

Stephen Larkham (Australia)

Scrum cap-wearing beanpole, has silky skills and a devastating pass. Having been there and done it, he was due to join Edinburgh, which is a bit of a worry.

James Hook (Wales)

Scored only try in heavy loss to France last week. Natural points-scorer has made huge strides in brief pro career. Must play stand-off.

Watch the opening clash between France and Argentina on ITV1 on Friday, kick-off 8pm