Threat from within
Stuart Barnes looks at the quarter-final permutations and how the pressure is growing on the All Blacks.
Last Updated: 13/10/11 2:01pm
'French Fried', 'French Toast'; Sunday morning's New Zealand paper headlines give the impression that this rugby-mad country is already in triumphant mode. In fact the newspapers could hardly be further from the truth.
This is a deeply conservative land with an incredible capacity to see the worst in everything. When you mock an All Black fan and say the tournament doesn't start for the hosts until the pressure of the knockout stages, they rush to concur. By the end of the conversation a man ends up consoling them for heaven's sake. "Honestly, you ARE the best and you should win the competition."
The native nervously shakes his head as if a trick is being played; a matter of lulling this land and its team into a state of complacency. The truth is that New Zealand really should end their barren period of World Cup failure.
As long as New Zealand can maintain their pace they could go through this competition with barely a blow being struck against them. For 40 minutes against France they were simply devastating. The black wind blew through a decent French effort and left them decimated and out of contention within 45 minutes.
The tournament has seen nothing remotely as good but we continue to pick out possible pitfalls; maybe the line out, perhaps the cover at half-back (nine and ten). But we are scratching around for the flaws without any real conviction. New Zealand's biggest threat comes from within - pressure. The burden of expectation is beginning to grow. All that guff about the party being more important than the result is growing thin.
The land of the Long White Cloud remains bathed in global rugby rainbows but the eyes are turning towards the All Blacks. Saturday's 30-minute demolition will only fuel both the expectation and the pressure.
If there is one team that appears capable of taking New Zealand down it is their old rivals, South Africa. Set piece strong and clever at the breakdown with a goal kicker to break your heart and a streak of experience running hard through them; they are being watched closely. Keep an eye out for their bench. It is as formidable an explosion of forward power off the bench as I have ever seen.
Yet I cannot see the Springboks winning the tournament, even if they beat New Zealand and spoil the party. The Ireland win against Australia has had profound implications for the competition by sending the Tri Nations into their own half of the draw. As long as Ireland do not blow it against Italy on Sunday, the task of winning the tournament has been immeasurably toughened for Australia and South Africa. The Springboks are looking dangerous but they are not getting any younger.
Australia has a wondrous array of talent but the pool is skin deep and injuries are threatening to capsize them.
Whichever of them beats the other in the highly likely quarter final will have their work cut out against New Zealand whose quarter final path appears set to run over brave but battered Argentina. On an inspired day either of them could beat a nervous, off- form New Zealand but what would they have left in the locker after two such battles?
The European challenge
Maybe not enough to repel a previously unforeseen European challenge. Australia or South Africa will have to do the Europeans work as I cannot see any of our challenges handling the All Blacks. But if one of them does I could certainly see Ireland, for example, picking them off in a final. It is New Zealand or Europe from where I sit in Auckland airport waiting a flight to Nelson for the Italy v USA game on Tuesday.
Of the European challenge England is the one New Zealand fears most. Martin Johnson's men are unloved but deeply respected. Whether England have yet done enough to merit that respect remains a debating point. Still, rotten as the opposition was Saturday it was a clear improvement.
Ireland have the form in the book and are a happy camp but Wales should beat Fiji easily and line up as a cussed quarter final opponent. The Wales team are in great condition and appear superbly led by the sensational new captain, Sam Warburton. His battle with the mighty Sean O'Brien will be worth a flight to Wellington in its own right.
And then everyone here sees the final quarter-final as England versus France. Scotland may yet have a say in that. I cannot see them beating England by the eight points required to cause a sensation and eliminate England but recent history is a stark reminder that they will not be daunted.
They cannot score tries but England have yet to convince against decent opposition here. I think England win but not without a fight, especially if Andy Robinson keeps the potent Richie Gray on the field for the duration. I reckon his premature substitution (unless injured) was the turning point of the gripping game with Argentina.
Should England win, the French match has a desperately tight look to it. France played some good stuff against New Zealand and a flat-out French XV appears stronger than England's on paper. But England have a mental strength which France cannot take for granted and if the men in white turn the game into a scrap, they have to be favourites.
An England semi-final against Ireland or Wales is a dream which was beyond our Northern Hemisphere imaginations only weeks ago. Right now it looks like the forthcoming reality. One game, Ireland's win against Australia, has turned the tournament on its head.
Okay, the flight is boarding and I must go. A week from now we will know the quarter-finals for certain; have Georgia, Scotland, Italy, Fiji or Samoa a shock left in the locker? I don't think so but nothing is certain in this life... bar the glass of Sauvignon Blanc awaiting me in Nelson. Speak soon.