All Blacks fans on edge again

by Staff Writer

Right on cue, the seeds of doubt have been planted - if not in the minds of the All Blacks themselves, then certainly in the fragile psyche of scarred New Zealand rugby fans craving long overdue World Cup glory.

After another two years of utter domination, the top-ranked All Blacks' vice-like grip on tournament favouritism has eased ever so slightly with untimely back-to-back losses to their two greatest challengers going into the tournament.

South Africa's victory over a second-string New Zealand outfit in Port Elizabeth and Australia's title-deciding Tri Nations triumph in Brisbane halted a golden run of 22 wins from 23 Tests for the All Blacks since 2009.

The collective groan of an anxious, rugby-mad nation could almost be heard across the ditch as the All Blacks' aura of invincibility was shattered in one demoralising week.

With their history of slip-ups at the quadrennial showpiece, the All Blacks' pre-tournament lapse will have their fans fearing another World Cup meltdown, even more catastrophic this time around because it's on home soil.

"I'm sure there will be a bit of panic," straight-shooting, straight-running New Zealand centre Conrad Smith admitted.

"But if you're a good team and your backs are against the wall, that should be when you play your best.

"If we're any good, we'll come out of this and it will be a lesson that has helped us."

All Blacks coach Graham Henry has spoken of the need for his team to adopt a different approach and relish the challenge posed by the sudden-death play-off stage at the World Cup - admitting their mindset may have been a problem in the past.

"We haven't been good at sudden-death football in recent times," Henry said.

"We need to have a special mentality playing those sudden-death games - quarter-final, semi-final and final, you need a special mentality. I think we've got to enjoy the challenge."

Henry brushed off the recent twin defeats as a wake-up call that would shake off any complacency, but Australia's drought-breaking Tri Nations success also taught the second-ranked Wallabies a lesson or two.

In a major confidence booster, the Wallabies virtually beat the All Blacks twice at Suncorp Stadium, bashing and barging their way to a seemingly impregnable halftime lead before recovering to snatch victory from a second-half 20-all deadlock.

Robbie Deans' new-age Wallabies had lost so many of these tight trans-Tasman contests in the past it's no wonder the coach was chuffed, knowing the belief such a win would instil.

"That's something that they have been doing to us routinely, so it was good to turn the tables," Deans said.

New Zealand and Australia are the only sides rated as single-figure chances of lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy, with defending champions South Africa third fancies at $10 odds with international bookmakers Betfair, followed by England (18-1), France (21-1) and Ireland (55-1).

If results go according to the seedings, the All Blacks and Wallabies will clash for the first time in a Rugby World Cup final on October 23 at Auckland's Eden Park.

But the event is littered with upsets, none greater than France's quarter-final ambush of New Zealand in Cardiff just hours after Australia's shock loss to England's so-called Dad's Army line-up in Marseilles four years ago.

France and England are once again positioned to scupper hopes of a dream All Blacks-Wallabies final showdown.

And there are any number of key pool encounters with the potential to turn the title race upside down.

A French victory over the All Blacks in Auckland on September 24, which would repeat Les Bleus' last-up Test win on New Zealand territory in 2009, would change the entire dynamics of the seven-week tournament.

Such a scenario would suddenly have the All Blacks facing a semi-final against the Wallabies instead and put the Springboks in the comparatively easier side of the draw.

Likewise, a Wallabies stumble against Ireland at Eden Park on September 17 would drastically alter the quarter-final scenario and place Australia on a much tougher road to the final.

An upset-free round of pool matches would result in New Zealand meeting Argentina or Scotland in the quarter-finals, England playing France, Australia up against Wales or Samoa and South Africa taking on Ireland.

Most experts are tipping the All Blacks to tackle the Springboks in one blockbuster semi-final and the Wallabies to square off with France or World Cup nemeses England, with Jonny Wilkinson again lurking ominously, in the other.

But as All Blacks followers especially have learned, it is a dangerous exercise indeed looking too far ahead at a Rugby World Cup.

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