Patrick McKendry takes a look at his crystal rugby ball to see what lies ahead.
The French are coming
Prepare yourselves for the words “nemesis”, “unpredictable” and “flair”. Also, references to the last time the All Blacks lost at Eden Park (to France in 1994) and the “try from the end of the world”.
The Tricolours will arrive in June for three tests in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, and possibly with a new coach, with former Italy coach Jacques Brunel replacing Guy Noves. Noves, who took over from Philippe Saint-Andre following the last World Cup, won only seven of 22 tests; one of his more notorious results was the most recent – a 23-23 draw with Japan. He was sacked on Wednesday last week.
The French were last in New Zealand in 2013 and lost all three tests – expect the same this time.
Traditionally they have saved their best for World Cups, knocking the All Blacks out of the 1999 and 2007 tournaments (and giving them a mighty scare in the 2011 final).
But they hardly fired a shot against Steve Hansen’s men in the 2015 quarter-final in Cardiff and will arrive tired after a long club season to face an All Black team bolstered by the return from back surgery of skipper Kieran Read.
Their second-half performance against the All Blacks in Paris in November, when they out-scored the visitors 13-7 in a topsy-turvy 38-18 defeat, might give them a little hope. Their best chance for an upset will be in the first test at Eden Park on June 9, a place that holds few fears for them – see “try from the end of the world” and that excruciating World Cup final.
The Boks are back
Cast your mind back to one of the most intense tests involving the All Blacks in 2017 – the Cape Town test against the Springboks three weeks after the 57-0 thrashing at Albany.
In a test which displayed perfectly how close the margins are at this level, and how important a team’s mental approach is, the Boks pushed the All Blacks all the way in a 24-25 defeat. They were relentless in the tackle and breakdown, forcing 20 turnovers, and badly hampered by the controversial red card to midfielder Damian de Allende.
Was that the start of a Springbok revival under embattled coach Allister Coetzee? It’s certainly a game plan they should stick to because no team likes to be beaten up at the breakdown. The All Blacks will play them in Wellington and at a venue in South Africa yet to be determined and they should prove the toughest opponents of the Rugby Championship.
The Boks have slipped below Scotland to sixth in World Rugby’s rankings – an unacceptable fall given their talent and playing resources.
In better news, hooker Malcolm Marx, who had the game of his life in Cape Town, will rival Dane Coles as the best in his position in the world in 2018.
Argentina won’t get within 20 points of the All Blacks in either of their two tests.
In their last test of 2017, Australia were thrashed 53-24 by Scotland. A week earlier, also at Murrayfield, the Scots pushed the All Blacks close (they have never beaten New Zealand in a test).
They have improved significantly recently, but even so, the whipping they gave the Wallabies was a humiliation for Michael Cheika’s men. There could be more to come. In June, Ireland visit Australia for three tests and the Wallabies will be in real danger of losing that series given Ireland’s quality and depth built by Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt.
The Wallabies, who won the third Bledisloe Cup rubber in Brisbane in October, will lose all three tests against the All Blacks in 2018 – in Sydney, Auckland and Japan. The latter, which is New Zealand’s to host, will be held there to provide a World Cup-type experience for the All Blacks. Coach Cheika will moan about the officiating in two out of the three.
The Big One
In November, the All Blacks will take part in one of the most anticipated tests in many years – against Eddie Jones’ England at Twickenham.
Jones, the motormouth Australian, has built a phenomenal record during his two years as England coach of 22 wins from 23 tests. The only blemish was a Six Nations loss to Ireland.
But he hasn’t coached England against the All Blacks yet. Expect plenty of talk about “World Cup markers”, and putting lines in sand. Expect too a most courteous build-up in the week before between Jones and Hansen.
The mutual charm offensive will frustrate the media looking for juicy soundbites but won’t fool many. Behind closed doors the talk will be very different because this is a massive test and it’s likely to be close.
Prediction: England will win it with a late Owen Farrell penalty after a controversial decision by the referee, helped by the crowd and a partial big-screen television operator. New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley will be lucky to escape a citing for foul play.