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All Blacks ready for 2011 homecoming

Richie McCaw
Richie McCaw has now captained the All Blacks in a record 52 Tests

By Mike Henson

"Four more years boys, four more years."

On-pitch barbs don't get much more precise and painful than George Gregan's as Australia beat New Zealand in the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final.

The All Blacks' search for a second global title after victory on home soil in the inaugural event in 1987 is one of the most talked-about sideshows in the sport.

The statistic that Gregan so enjoyed rubbing in now stands at 23 years.

But with a little over a year to go before the 2011 final in Auckland's Eden Park, the current class seem particularly well placed to stop the clock.

There are two World Cups we should have won but we didn't - 1995 and 2007

All Blacks legend Zinzan Brooke

Fifteen consecutive Test victories in the past 12 months have culminated in a clean sweep of this year's Tri-Nations, including notable late victories in South Africa and Australia in their final two matches.

If they extend their winning run over Australia to 11 Tests when the sides meet again in Hong Kong on 30 October, these All Blacks will arrive at Twickenham on 6 November aiming to equal the world record of 17 consecutive Test wins against major nations shared by the New Zealand side of 1965-70 and the Springboks of 1997-98.

Perhaps most encouragingly for their fans, they have showed a steely match-winning instinct.

They scored 14 points in the last 13 minutes to pip the Wallabies in Sydney earlier this month to maintain their winning run after an even-more dramatic surge in their previous match had left Springboks captain John Smit dumbfounded.

Israel Dagg and Mils Muliaina
Israel Dagg celebrates his last-ditch try in the 29-22 win in South Africa

"They certainly know how to come from behind as well as how to take a lead and stay ahead in games," All Blacks legend Zinzan Brooke, a member of the 1987 World Cup-winning squad, told BBC Sport.

"They have used a couple of get-out-of-jail-free cards but that's what you need - that dogged mentality.

"On current form, on current form that is, you would say that the All Blacks are certainly a punch above everyone else at the moment."

But, as Brooke implies, however impressive New Zealand's form, there are plenty that believe history undermines their World Cup credentials.

The team came into the 2007 tournament with three successive Tri-Nations titles behind them and more than three years at the top of the IRB rankings.

But their campaign ended in quarter-final defeat by a French team they had beaten by margins of 31 and 51 points only four months earlier.

606: DEBATE

Another inspired French performance accounted for the All Blacks in 1999 and South Africa's collective will and an alleged bout of food poisoning derailed them in the 1995 final.

But Brooke believes claims that New Zealand have been serial chokers reflect opponents' fears rather than fact.

"I think we have only really lost a couple of World Cups," said Brooke, who played in the 1995 final and semi-final loss to Australia four years earlier.

"In 1995 we definitely should have won, but we weren't good enough in 1991 or 1999. We certainly were not good enough in 2003 and then should have won it in 2007.

"There are two World Cups we should have won but we didn't - 1995 and 2007."

All Blacks coach Graham Henry surprisingly retained his job despite overseeing that most recent disaster , and as he turns 65 a few months before next year's tournament, is likely to bow out at its conclusion.

So far the former Wales and British and Irish Lions coach seems to have learned his lessons.

He has utilized a more consistent core of players, naming 18 players to start the first five games of the 2010 Tri-Nations compared to 23 in the four matches that made up the 2007 Tri-Nations.

McCaw has got unfinished business with the World Cup - you can see it in his eyes

Sean Fitzpatrick

That year Henry withdrew key internationals from most of the Super 14 competition, but next year - with the Tri-Nations finishing a mere two weeks before the World Cup - there is no question of his squad not arriving battle-hardened.

Some stiffer competition in the pool stages should help as well.

The phoney war of the 2007 group stages, where Italy (76-14), Portugal (108-13), a second-string Scotland (40-0) and Romania (85-8) were obliterated all too easily, was no preparation for the cut-throat, knock-out intensity of the Cardiff quarter-final.

While the All Blacks will be expected to comfortably dispose of Tonga, Japan and Canada in their 2011 group, they also have their 2007 conquerors France, who won in New Zealand as recently as last year.

Most significantly perhaps, a complicated clarification of the rules surrounding the breakdown earlier this year has undoubtedly strengthened the hosts' mobile multi-phase game.

"Graham Henry lives the game, every minute of it, and has really stepped up to the challenge of the way rugby is being played at the moment," stated Sean Fitzpatrick, a 1987 World Cup winner who also experienced the pain of defeat in 1991 and 1995.

"I think he has learnt a lot. He has got some key players in key positions who are playing their best rugby now.

"You need world-class players right through the team from 15 through to the front row. At the moment they are playing well and there is no reason why that shouldn't continue for the next 12 months."

Richie McCaw and Graham Henry
McCaw and Henry face some tough questions after 2007's defeat to France

Among that world-class core are several survivors of the 2007 trauma, notably fly-half Dan Carter, full-back Mils Muliaina, prop Tony Woodcock and flanker Richie McCaw, captain on that fateful day in Cardiff.

"McCaw has got unfinished business with the World Cup - you can see it in his eyes," added Fitzpatrick, who McCaw overtook recently as the man who has led New Zealand most in Tests (now 52).

"I think he has really developed and stepped up to the mark hugely.

"World Cup teams who are going to be successful need a good captain and hopefully he can remain injury-free and go the distance."

The emergence and development of players such as Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Tom Donnelly and Kieran Read over the past year has further strengthened Henry's hand.

While rugby league convert Sonny Bill Williams, who starred alongside Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon last year, has earned his first call-up for the trip to the northern hemisphere.

The powerful 25-year-old could offer a tantalising X-factor midfield option having opted to return to New Zealand to try to win a place in the World Cup squad.

Given their current pre-eminence, Henry could be forgiven for wishing away the next 12 months until his side kick-off the next global jamboree in front of their home fans against Tonga on 9 September.

But even if he does get his hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy six weeks later, Brooke can already foresee the next jibe from future opponents.

"The critics will be out straightaway saying, 'Yeah, New Zealand won it but they can never win outside of their own country'," he said.

"So according to some people, we won't win the World Cup even if we do win it."



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see also
Rugby World Cup fixtures and results
26 Sep 11 |  Rugby Union
Tri-Nations ends just before RWC
19 Aug 10 |  Rugby Union
Australia 22-23 New Zealand
11 Sep 10 |  Rugby Union
South Africa 22-29 New Zealand
21 Aug 10 |  Rugby Union
Henry named as All Blacks coach
06 Dec 07 |  Rugby Union
New Zealand 18-20 France
06 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union
1999: France 43-31 N Zealand
24 Sep 03 |  History
1995: Party time for SA
24 Sep 03 |  History
Captain Kirk recalls victory
18 Nov 03 |  History


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