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New Zealand Rugby World Cup preview: All Blacks not the indestructible juggernaut they once were

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New Zealand Rugby World Cup preview: While undeniably favourites and chasing a historic third triumph in a row… All Blacks are not the indestructible juggernaut they were four years ago and they CAN be beaten

  • New Zealand are in Pool B with South Africa, Italy, Namibia and Canada  
  • The Rugby World Cup holders are not without their problems this year though  
  • Damian McKenzie’s injury has heaped pressure on Beauden Barrett’s versatility
  • The dropping of 110-cap prop Owen Franks was a major squad selection surprise 

Ahead of the Rugby World Cup in England four years ago, New Zealand were at the supreme peak of their powers.

Led by international stalwarts Richie McCaw as captain, and Dan Carter as fly-half, the All Blacks went into the 2015 tournament with a pool of players unmatched by anyone else in the tournament – current linchpin Beauden Barrett, for example, only made the bench.

Yet this time round, despite being favourites with the bookies again, there are question marks surrounding squad depth and, most importantly, current form; three defeats and a draw in the past year meant New Zealand, albeit briefly, lost their No 1 ranking to Wales last month, and there are gaps in the arsenal of Steve Hansen’s side which should give contenders optimism ahead of this year’s tournament in Japan.

New Zealand captain Kieran Read (centre) leads the squad for the 2019 World Cup in Japan

New Zealand captain Kieran Read (centre) leads the squad for the 2019 World Cup in Japan

Then-captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after the All Blacks beat Australia in 2015

Then-captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after the All Blacks beat Australia in 2015

Then-captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after the All Blacks beat Australia in 2015

POOL B FIXTURES  

South Africa, September 21, 10.45am

Canada, October 2, 11.15am

Namibia, October 6, 5.45am

Italy, October 12, 5.45am 

But, before realistic hope turns into unrealistic expectation for the home nations, Australia and South Africa alike, a few statistics to illustrate New Zealand’s dominance at rugby’s showpiece event.

New Zealand top the charts for all-time Rugby World Cup points, tries, and games won – 44 out of 50. The All Blacks have NEVER lost a pool game, in eight Rugby World Cups, and they became the first ever country to defend their title, by winning in 2015. They’re now chasing a historic hat-trick.

So then, why does now feel like Steve Hansen’s side are at the lowest ebb they’ve ever been at under his eight-year tenure? To examine, we have to go back to the start of the four year cycle, after that convincing win in the final against Australia at Twickenham. 

The retirements of McCaw, Carter and Ma’a Nonu after their 2015 triumph were anticipated, and preparations were well underway to replace them. Kieran Read took over as captain, and over a four-year period has undoubtedly thrived with the extra responsibility. 

Beauden Barrett took over as fly-half, and won two consecutive IRB World Rugby Player of the Year awards, in 2016 and 2017, such were Barrett’s (one of three siblings to play for the All Blacks) immaculate Test match performances. Not bad. 

Dan Carter (L), McCaw and Ma'a Nonu (R) all retired from internationals after their 2015 victory

Dan Carter (L), McCaw and Ma'a Nonu (R) all retired from internationals after their 2015 victory

Dan Carter (L), McCaw and Ma’a Nonu (R) all retired from internationals after their 2015 victory

KEY PLAYER 

Beauden Barrett 

Still widely regarded as the best player on the planet, Beauden Barrett’s irresistible brand of lighting footwork, ingenious creativity and remarkable composure means he’s the man the All Blacks constantly turn to for a spark.

It does, however, remain to be seen how Barrett’s role will change if he plays at full-back, with Richie Mo’unga at fly-half, which occurred at the Rugby Championship.

New Zealand fly-half Beauden Barrett

New Zealand fly-half Beauden Barrett

New Zealand fly-half Beauden Barrett

Solutions were found in the backs, as Rieko Ioane’s explosion onto the scene meant 2015’s breakthrough winger Nehe Milner-Skudder was quickly forgotten, and in the pack, Sam Whitelock’s continued power and prominence meant the four-year cycle started off as it left off. Success, here, there and everywhere.

But, gradually in the past two years, cracks have begun to show. A thrilling drawn series with the Lions in 2017 was far from the end of the world – a failure to score a try in the second Test was, for instance, a simple anomaly.

But, when they lost in Ireland for the first time ever in November 2018 and failed to score a try again, it somewhat set the tone for what has been, by Hansen’s standards, a sub-standard 2019.

Their Rugby Championship campaign started with a narrow victory in Argentina, and was followed by a 16-16 draw in Wellington against South Africa, who won the overall tournament. The most startlingly concerning result though was two weeks later in Perth, when New Zealand were thrashed, yes thrashed, by Australia, 47-26. 

New Zealand, double-world-champions, finished the four-team tournament in third. 

Now, while the All Blacks did inevitably recover to retain the Bledisloe Cup against Australia with a 36-point whitewash a week later at fortress Eden Park, the question marks are there for everyone to see. New Zealand open up the World Cup against South Africa in Yokohama – a match-up that could define their time in Japan. 

Australia stunned the rugby world by beating New Zealand by more than 20 points in Perth

Australia stunned the rugby world by beating New Zealand by more than 20 points in Perth

Australia stunned the rugby world by beating New Zealand by more than 20 points in Perth

Realistically though, whether it be first or second, New Zealand should cruise into the knockout stages. An 11-day break follows the South Africa clash, when they then play Canada and Namibia in the space of five days, before finishing off a week later against Italy, a team they have never lost to.  

Top the group and New Zealand will face the runners-up of Pool A in the quarter-finals, meaning a likely clash with Scotland. Should they lose to South Africa however, a reunion with Ireland – who have a torrid World Cup record, having never reached the semi-finals – could be on the cards. 

Squad-wise, New Zealand are obviously still riddled with first-class experience and talent. Stability and assuredness? Not so much.

In fact, if anything, the shock omission of Owen Franks from the 31-man squad is an indictment of the slumping levels in form. Franks has been a regular in the front row since Hansen took charge, but the constantly high standards set means one bad match, and you can be shown the door. 

110 caps, bags of experience, but no place in the 31-man World Cup squad for Owen Franks

110 caps, bags of experience, but no place in the 31-man World Cup squad for Owen Franks

110 caps, bags of experience, but no place in the 31-man World Cup squad for Owen Franks

HEAD COACH  

Steve Hansen

New Zealand’s best-ever coach. The former Wales boss was assistant to mentor Sir Graham Henry when the All Blacks won on home-soil in 2011, before taking the reins. 

Since then, he has overseen an unprecedented period of success, the highlight alongside the 2015 triumph perhaps being winning every single match in 2013, which had never been done before in international rugby. 

Hansen will however step down after this year’s tournament in Japan.

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen

That seems to have been the way with Franks, who was dropped from the matchday squad following the loss to Australia in Perth and whose All Blacks career now looks at an end, with a move to Northampton Saints on the horizon.

Hansen has instead opted for Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao, stating ‘we believe the game requires us to have big mobile No 1s and No 3s and in this case, we just think the other guys that we’ve named are more so than he.’ 

The other glaring absentee from the regular All Blacks squad – though we have known this for a while now – is Damien McKenzie. The dynamic full-back tore his ACL playing in Super Rugby back in April, and will be a big loss to the reigning champions. 

The net result of McKenzie’s injury has been Barrett shifting to the No 15 jersey, with Canterbury’s Richie Mo’unga taking over at 10, and Beauden’s brother Jordie an excellent utility option from the bench. Incidentally, Mo’unga has been passed fit for the tournament after injuring his shoulder at the Rugby Championship. 

Elsewhere, experienced lock Brodie Retallick has been named but is unlikely to play in the pool stages as he nurses a dislocated shoulder, while centre Ryan Crotty is similarly touch-and-go for September 21 following a broken thumb.

Flanker Liam Squire, who was a potential starter at No 6, opted not to take up a place in the 31-man squad owing to the fact he didn’t feel ‘physically or mentally’ ready for Test match rugby – Luke Jacobson is the beneficiary of Squire’s courageous decision.

In the backs, veteran Ben Smith makes the cut, despite being dropped for the most recent outing against Australia, with this tournament being his last in an All Blacks shirt before he moves to French club Pau in the New Year. 

Ben Smith, with 80 caps over 10 years, is one of the most experienced members of the squad

Ben Smith, with 80 caps over 10 years, is one of the most experienced members of the squad

Ben Smith, with 80 caps over 10 years, is one of the most experienced members of the squad

Winger Rieko Ioane burst onto the scene against the Lions in 2017 and is now a key player

Winger Rieko Ioane burst onto the scene against the Lions in 2017 and is now a key player

Winger Rieko Ioane burst onto the scene against the Lions in 2017 and is now a key player

So, can New Zealand do it again?

Recent history says yes, with the All Blacks dominating all before them in 2015, and grinding out victories despite a plethora of injuries in 2011. But, it should be worth noting that New Zealand are always favourites.. and that hasn’t always resulted in victory.

The most infamous shock was 2007, when they were overpowered by a Thierry Dusautoir-inspired French performance in the quarter-finals. They also fell to hosts Australia in the 2003 semi-finals. 

In 2019 though, some individual records beckon, for captain Read, powerhouse Whitelock and maverick Sonny Bill Williams. With Franks’ exclusion, this triumvirate are chasing three consecutive world cups, having won winners’ medals in 2011 and 2015. 

With Hansen’s squad depicting a blend of youth and experience, power and panache, control and charisma, New Zealand are quite rightly, the formidable favourites in Japan. Talk of a brief demise in quality and form will only serve as extra motivation to Read’s side; a side whose winning mentality cannot be matched by any team in international rugby. 

Everyone is doing it, but be warned. Right off the All Blacks at your peril.

Sonny Bill Williams, after stints in rugby league and boxing, is chasing a third World Cup title

Sonny Bill Williams, after stints in rugby league and boxing, is chasing a third World Cup title

Sonny Bill Williams, after stints in rugby league and boxing, is chasing a third World Cup title



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Unai Emery slammed in damning verdict before Arsenal hero then takes swipe at Nicolas Pepe

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Unai Emery has not solved any of the grave problems which existed at Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, according to Paul Merson.

Arsenal made a bright start to the campaign but have not won their last three league games, losing to Liverpool and drawing with Tottenham and Watford.

Last weekend’s capitulation at Vicarage Road particularly brought Emery under fire as Arsenal’s passing out from the back tactics were punished by the Hornets.

And Merson, who played for the club for 12 years, has taken aim at Emery in a column for the Daily Star.

“It’s Unai Wenger at Arsenal at the moment because it’s the same old story,” he said.

“They go 2-0 down against Tottenham and suddenly the shackles come off and they look like the Harlem Globetrotters.

“But then against Watford they go 2-0 up and by the end of the game they’re hanging on for dear life. That can’t happen.

“It’s like the Arsene Wenger days all over again. It’s no different.

“Why is it that just because there’s a new rule where you don’t have to go out of your box at a goal kick, that Arsenal think they have to pass it four yards across their own goal?

“It’s Playstation football. It’s something you’d see on FIFA. Not in the Premier League. Emery will have to change his ways or he’ll soon be out of a job.

“If they don’t beat Aston Villa at the Emirates today the fans might start to turn.”

New signing Nicolas Pepe also felt the wrath of Merson.

The £72million man from Lille has not scored but supplied two assists in six Gunners appearances so far.

“And Nicolas Pepe needs to pull his finger out too,” Merson added.

“He hasn’t looked anything like a £72m footballer so far.”

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Crystal Palace hero Wilfried Zaha opens up on failed Arsenal and Everton summer transfers

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Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha has said that he will always love the club despite wanting to leave in the summer.

Arsenal wanted to sign Zaha but Palace wanted in excess of £70million for him, something which the Gunners could not afford in full.

Once that move fell through, Everton then came in for the Ivorian’s signature.

But Palace wouldn’t listen to their offers either – one of which was said to be £50m plus Cenk Tosun and James McCarthy.

Zaha’s brother Judicael spoke publicly about his sibling’s desire to leave Palace for Arsenal – who he supported as a child.

The former Manchester United winger ended up staying with Palace – the club he professes to love regardless of his summer wishes.

“To be honest what happened in the summer happened,” he told Palace fan site HLTCO.

“Obviously there were things that I was told that did not happen and I was not happy about it.

“I’m still a Palace player and I’m still at Palace and want to do well for the club.

“It’s an honour to play for Palace in the Premier League

“I love Crystal Palace. I feel like the fans and everything in the stadium is different to every club, it is a proper family club. Crystal Palace fans care about your well being.

“I will always love Crystal Palace – whatever happens.

“Even years back when I went to Manchester United I followed everything that happened at Palace. It will not end tomorrow if I ever move.

“I’ve been at Palace since I was eight. Palace is a special place.”

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Kieran Tierney close to Arsenal debut as Unai Emery provides injury update on three stars

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Arsenal manager Unai Emery has offered updates on the fitness of defensive trio Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney.

The Gunners take on Aston Villa at the Emirates tomorrow (4.30pm) looking to respond to their disappointment against Watford a week ago.

Arsenal squandered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at Vicarage Road in their second successive draw, both by the same score-line.

A much-changed side recovered to beat Eintracht Frankfurt in their opening Europa League group stage game on Thursday but now getting back on track domestically is their chief ambition.

Their mid-week clean sheet will however have been more than welcome for Emery, whose side have once again struggled defensively this season.

David Luiz, signed from Chelsea for £8million in the summer, gave away a second penalty in just three games at Watford and Arsenal have already leaked eight goals in five league matches.

Such are their problems at the back that Arsenal fans are clamouring for the returns of several stars, with Holding and Bellerin long-term absentees while another summer addition – left-back Tierney – has yet to make his debut due to fitness issues.

But the Spanish boss has revealed the trio are all increasingly closer to 100 per cent, with former Celtic star Tierney closing in on his first appearance after moving south of the border for £25m.

Emery said: ”[Holding] is ready to play. We are playing on Sunday against Aston Villa and on Tuesday against Nottingham Forest [in the Carabao Cup]. These two matches I can decide whether or not to play.

“Hector Bellerin has had a long injury. He needs to go through a process, then we will see how he’s feeling. When he’s confident enough to play, he can start with us.

“With Kieran Tierney, his injury was shorter than Bellerin’s, but the same [process].

“He’ll play [Friday night], we’ll see how he finishes that match and then we have two matches Sunday and Tuesday so, maybe, maybe, he’ll be ready to play some minutes with us.”

Both Bellerin and Tierney lasted an hour of action unscathed as Arsenal’s under-23s drew 2-2 with Wolves last night.

Looking ahead to their return to Premier League action tomorrow, Arsenal have lost just one of their last 20 home games in the division, winning 20.

The Londoners are on a six-match winning streak against Villa, keeping a clean sheet in their past five meetings.

Villa, meanwhile, have lost their last nine away games in the top flight and are one game away from matching their club record of 10 straight defeats on the road set back in 1925.

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