Why New Zealand’s Dominance in World Rugby Could Be a Thing of the Past
In September 2019, New Zealand headed to Japan with ambitions of winning their third Rugby World Cup in a row.
The bookies had the All Blacks as the favorites to win a tournament that also boasted the world’s highest-ranked team, Ireland, as well as strong England, South African, and Wales outfits.
Despite spanking everyone on their way to a semi-final against England, New Zealand managed to score just seven points in that game. Not only were they beaten well, but they were bossed in every single department by Eddie Jones’ ruthless side.
New Zealand took that loss on the chin before going on to beat Wales to the bronze medal in the tournament. That was not exactly a consolation prize that they would have wanted prior to the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Now, the rebuilding process for 2023 takes shape. Unfortunately for New Zealand, things don’t look as promising as they have in the past. With a lack of big game players filling the gaps of predecessors and an unusual lack of stellar talent coming through, I’m going to explore why New Zealand’s dominance in world rugby could be over.
What Happens in Japan Stays in Japan?
Make no mistake about it, this one will especially hurt the Kiwis.
Having beaten the eventual winners, South Africa, in the first game, New Zealand breezed to that expected semi-final against the English brimming with confidence. Well, that’s probably what it looked like for those of us watching on.
Still, there were plenty of signs in the run-up to the tournament that the All Blacks could be caught out. It just took an exceptional English rush defense and some shrewd tactics from Jones to prove it.
It was unusual for a New Zealand team in this century to be so hesitant in their tactics and to tinker so much with their first XV immediately before a tournament. There was much second-guessing, a lack of structure, and — perhaps more telling — an absence of a few big voices in the camp.
Now, don’t get me wrong — replacing the irreplaceable is an unenviable task. The likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Jerome Kaino, and Ma’a Nonu were not just legendary players but big game men and incredibly influential.
This team simply did not have those heads to gain inspiration from. Sure, the reason why the aforementioned names were capable of such heroic feats was, ironically, because they had been part of All Blacks teams that both had failed miserably and attained iconic status in previous tournaments.
That failure was arguably the key ingredient needed here, however.
It is not to say that the All Blacks didn’t have ambassadorial gladiators such as Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock in the team. It’s just that they lacked the all-round composure needed to keep heads on ice when things look as though they are going awry.
Hansen sure could have used the experienced Owen Franks to help steady the ship against England, but he was, surprisingly, left behind in New Zealand.
Chances and Gambles
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen certainly looked as though he was conscious of being figured out in this tournament. In fact, it seemed that this awareness probably grew to be unfounded paranoia.
Once again, the signs were there prior to Japan. In a combined ten tests, Hansen tried out five unique combinations in midfield. He tinkered on the wings. And he also pushed Beauden Barrett to fullback while making Richie Mo’unga his starting 10.
Did this unsettling of the backs have an effect on the team as a whole?
Against England, it looked as though the cracks were well and truly exposed. The team did not look comfortable in accessing Plan B, probably because Plan B was not accessible at all.
Much like their 47-26 loss to Australia in the Bledisloe Cup Test earlier in 2019, they fell apart at the first sign of danger. Sure, Scott Barrett was sent off in Perth, but the manner of how some players capitulated was so… un-All Blacks.
That game showed the world that Hansen’s tactical approach was questionable.
England certainly exploited the holes in this All Blacks team by targeting the charge of players expected to lead the charge.
There was such an air of predictability in this sense, which is ironic given Hansen wanted to avoid this. It is as though his shuffles in the backs was supposed to account for every other department on the pitch. And let’s not forget the baffling decision to move Ardie Savea — arguably the best 7 in the world — to the blindside.
England was excellent on the day. There is no disputing that. However, the All Blacks’ tactics and hesitance made it easier.
Building for 2023 and Beyond
It would be convenient to forget that the New Zealand rugby team was widely considered world sports’ greatest choker before their Rugby World Cup win in 2011.
In the final, they almost blew that, too.
But since winning that tournament, they went on to successfully defend their title in 2015 and looked a great bet to win three in a row. For Kiwi fans, it seemed that all those years of near misses and blatant capitulations were a thing of the past.
Having won the first-ever World Cup in 1987, New Zealand failed in every single tournament since then. You see, not winning the World Cup is a failure for this nation. Why? Because they have been the best team in the sport since then.
Prior to 2011, All Blacks fans kind of got used to the team screwing up when it mattered most. Wins in 2011 and 2015 have kind of softened them up now. But in many ways, the teams of 2011 and 2015 could arguably be the greatest they ever had.
I know that is easily disputable, given the lack of a Colin Meads, Jonah Lomu, Michael Jones, or Grant Fox in the team. But 2011 and 2015’s McCaw and Carter, at very least, are in the pantheon of All Blacks greats.
So, where is the next crop of potential greats ahead of the 2023 World Cup? With Kieran Read also stepping away from the international limelight, is there a solid number 8 to fill his shoes?
It’s certainly early days for trying to predict the players that will stand out at the next World Cup. Still, it has never really been a problem before. In the aftermath of 2015 — albeit on a more positive note than 2019 — the same questions were asked regarding the new blood coming through.
Is New Zealand failing to produce players at the rate they have done before?
The “Baby Blacks” and What the Future Holds
Let’s take a quick look at the World Rugby Under 20 Championship.
In 2019, the “Baby Blacks” registered their lowest ever finish in the tournament, scraping seventh place with a win over Ireland. Should this ring alarm bells?
When you look to the past for answers, you will find that New Zealand has won more (6) than any other nation that has participated in the tournament. Four of those wins came on the bounce (between 2008 and 2011).
Since 2011, they have won two of the six tournaments, picking up the trophy in 2015 and 2017.
France has won the last two tournaments — which are also the only times that they have triumphed in this championship — in what appears to indicate a resurgence in French rugby.
There have been many pundits willingly pointing their fingers at the recent success of the French. So, on the flip side, it’s worth pointing out, at very least, that the junior All Blacks have not exactly had the greatest decade in the tournament.
If their success between 2008 and 2011 was an indication of what was to come for the senior team in the first half of this decade, then it doesn’t look great. Naturally, there are some players who almost skip a long slog in the youth setup and go straight into the senior team.
But still, it is worth pointing out that the junior side is far from lighting the world up. Given that these tournaments are played on an annual basis, the Under 20 Championships are a good gauge of where a team is, unlike a Rugby World Cup.
After a devastating defeat like the one suffered by the All Blacks in Japan, the rebuilding process comes with more urgency. Perhaps New Zealand is a country that needs reminding that, for all their superiorities in rugby, they cannot expect to put 15 players out and win every game.
Will the youth setup be shaken up if they fail to win the Under 20 Championship in 2020? Or will bells only start to chime if they fail to boss the junior international game by 2021 or 2022?
Can South Africa or England Take Over?
If we are discussing the possibility of filling the vacuum left by the dominant All Blacks, there are a couple of teams that could realistically establish their own reigns in international rugby.
The most logical approach would be to start with the 2019 Rugby World Cup finalists, South Africa and England. South Africa went on to win the Webb Ellis Trophy, while England, of course, knocked the All Blacks out in the semis.
Naturally, these are two teams that can look forward to 2023 with a lot of optimism.
The Springboks will be aiming to win their fourth World Cup at France ’23, and there is no doubt that they will have a solid team capable of doing so. Many of their stars of this World Cup will feature in the next one, making for an exciting prospect for the South Africans.
The blend of youth and experience was key to the Springboks’ triumph in Japan.
They arrived at the tournament with the sixth most experienced team in terms of caps earned. The forwards had a combined haul of 584 caps, while the backs had 490.
Siya Kolisi, Faf De Klerk, Handre Pollard, Damian De Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, and many more of this team will make the trip to France in four years.
More importantly, they will get to show what they can do in 2020’s Rugby Championship. If they can win back to back championships for the first time in the history of the Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship, that will be a big statement.
There is a lot of young talent being produced by South Africa right now, but their own record at the World Rugby Under 20 Championship is poor. They have only won a single tournament, and that was back in 2012.
So, does the emphasis on how the youth teams are doing really matter? I mean, is much being made of New Zealand’s poor record at these championships in recent times?
That will be something we will find out in 2023. But for now, it looks as though South Africa is in a very healthy place.
England Looking to the Future
While England came into the tournament as the fifth most experienced team in terms of total caps earned, they were also stacked with young talent. The average age of the team was 27 years and 60 days, making them the youngest Rugby World Cup finalists in the pro era.
Within that team were Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, who came in at 21 and 23, respectively. This makes them the youngest flankers to ever feature in a final.
Eddie Jones made a huge statement himself when he brought these two through. With 27-year-old Billy Vunipola slotting in at number 8, England should have the undisputed champion of back rows by the time 2023 rolls around or even earlier than that.
Helped by the youthful Curry and Underhill, England’s starting pack had an average age of 26. The likes of Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje are another two youngsters who have really made the grade.
Sure, experience might have won against youth in the final against South Africa, but you cannot deny that England’s band of young stars will be fully matured next time around. With even more young players coming through the system, the future looks bright for The Red Rose.
New Zealand will certainly be watching England’s progression with keen interest over the next four years.
New Zealand might not be the dominant force they have been throughout the majority of this decade, but they are still New Zealand.
With Steve Hansen’s reign now consigned to the history books, a new era of All Blacks rugby begins. Whether the team will have the same success in the future as they have enjoyed in the 2010s remains to be seen, but with South Africa and England beginning to take shape, they will have their work cut out.
Would you bet on New Zealand winning the World Cup in 2023? Or how about a punt on the All Blacks to win the Rugby Championship in 2020? If you fancy putting your money where your mouth is, head over to our top rugby betting sites and get your bets down.
Let’s see how the All Blacks respond to this latest heartbreak.