South Africa have spent the week preparing for their opener against New Zealand at Tokyo Disneyland, a sprawling coastal resort in the east of Japan’s capital, in a boomerang-shaped hotel. Two years ago, when the Springboks hit rock bottom, the location would have invited comparisons with Mickey Mouse, but they are more like Tarzan again.
The All Blacks are used to going into a World Cup as favourites, and at the top of the world rankings, a position currently occupied by Ireland. Since triumphing in 2015, they have declined slightly, losing their long unbeaten home record to the 2017 Lions in a series they failed to win for only the second time, suffering a first defeat to Ireland, followed up by a second two years later, and failing to beat South Africa in their last two home matches against them.
For other teams, that would reflect the oscillating nature of professional sport, but for the All Blacks, by far the most successful team in the history of international rugby, it is as unacceptable as it is uncommon.
Their record since winning the World Cup in 2015 has given others, not least South Africa, an injection of optimism. But they know better than anyone, as New Zealand’s closest rivals over the decades, that when the men in black are talked down their actions tend to speak volumes.
A notable example was in November 2004, the first year of Graham Henry’s reign. The match was staged in Paris and France were useful then and were promising to obliterate New Zealand up front and grind them to pulp. However, the home scrum only had a reverse gear and the All Blacks thrashed France 45-6, targeting their opponents at their perceived strongest point.
That was classic New Zealand, but it was also a time when the All Blacks played at such a consistently high level that they struggled to raise their game at a World Cup.
After winning the inaugural event in 1987, they were outsmarted by Australia in the semi-final four years later, shut out by South Africa in the 1995 final, blitzed by France in the 1999 semi-final, hustled by Australia in the 2003 semi and knocked out by France in the 2007 quarter-final after dominating possession.
That defeat, their last in a World Cup, prompted a major rethink. In the past, failure to return home with the Webb Ellis Cup prompted automatic dismissal of the coach. Henry survived, a decision that was not popular, and since then the All Blacks have come into the tournament with room to climb in the graph rather than at the apex.
So just as it was misplaced to make the All Blacks favourites in the 1990s and 2000s, is it a mistake to underestimate them now?
They have lost only six matches in the Rugby Championship this decade, four of them in World Cup years. Again this year, they used the tournament to look at new players and combinations rather than fret about winning it. They remain the team to beat in this tournament, if clearly mortal.
Their pool match against South Africa could be a preview for the final, although the European challenge has never been stronger, assuming Warren Gatland uses the abrupt departure of his assistant, Rob Howley, to wrest even more out of his Wales players.
Above all, New Zealand need to tickle their attack. The defeats to the Lions, Ireland and South Africa have a common theme: they all squeezed the All Blacks in the middle, denying them width and quick ball.
It was strange to see New Zealand in Dublin last November so lacking in ideas, ushered along culs-de-sac. There will be a response – because that is their way – and while the Six Nations celebrate their deal with a private equity company, which amounts to a short-term loan paid back at 15% interest each year, there remains no bigger draw in rugby for the profit-obsessed than the All Blacks.
The Six Nations are aggregating their rights, meaning November internationals are included in the package. A consequence of the deal is that World Rugby is likely to be reduced to the role of rule setter and referee for tier one rugby, its tour schedule fading like ink in the rain. If England and the rest want the All Blacks to fill their grounds in the autumn, they will have to pay still more.
The current system has increased the financial inequality between north and south, leading to an exodus of players from Super Rugby. As the risk of having to retire from the game early because of injury has grown, or at least been perceived to, all four Rugby Championship sides have been weakened.
The irony of the Six Nations deal is that it should lead to some financial redistribution: if it doesn’t, the south would look to expand their tournament, although South Africa have for a while looked at linking up with Europe, and not make autumn visits: the Six Nations would then find out what they are truly worth.
Which is the only team to feature on advertising on the Tokyo metro? Whose jersey is the one sported by locals in the city? Which country is being used to promote the tournament here? New Zealand, pioneers on and off the field.
Write them off this tournament, but who else would be where they are after losing the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Julian Savea and Jerome Kaino since the last World Cup? South Africa have been smiling this week, but they know what lies in their way.
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