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Black and gold? 5 questions for New Zealand heading into the World Cup

Will the game’s best side win a World Cup on foreign soil?

Rugby Union - QBE International - England v New Zealand - Twickenham Source: Davis Davies

1. Can Dan Carter deliver for the All Blacks?

DAN CARTER HAS unfinished business at the World Cup. The talismanic No 10, with 106 Tests under his belt as well as a world record Test points haul of 1,516, is gearing up for his fourth tournament.

Having been part of the All Blacks’ disastrous World Cup campaigns in 2003 and 2007, the Canterbury Crusaders No 10 was set to play a starring role at the 2011 showpiece on home soil before a freak groin injury during the captain’s run prior to the final Pool A clash with Canada in Wellington shattered his dream once more.

A litany of injuries, not to mention a six-month sabbatical, have limited his playing time since New Zealand’s World Cup triumph, but there have been signs in recent months that the Carter of old is returning to the fore.

After a quiet Super Rugby campaign, where he spent large parts operating at inside centre outside Colin Slade, Carter began to find his feet in an All Blacks jersey culminating in his tour de force against the Wallabies. Carter footwork and flat play on the gain line created tries for Dane Coles and Ma’a Nonu as Steve Hansen’s side demolished the Wallabies 41-13 in Auckland.

With Aaron Cruden ruled out of the tournament, the 33-year-old fly half will be integral to his side’s plans with Slade and the gifted Beauden Barrett providing serious depth. Before his multi-million euro move to Racing 92, Carter has a chance to lay his demons to rest at a World Cup.

2. Central conundrum for Steve Hansen?

It’s a problem that every other coach in the world would dream to have. All Blacks boss Hansen will bring a quartet of outrageously talented centres to London in the form of Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Malakai Fekitoa.

After experimenting with Nonu/Williams and Williams/Smith combinations early on in the Rugby Championship, Hansen resorted to the tried and trusted midfielder partnership of Nonu and Smith for the Bledisloe Cup decider against the Wallabies.

New Zealand Argentina Rugby Source: Rob Griffith

The Old Firm, as they’ve become known in recent seasons, will undoubtedly form the first-choice centre parting at the forthcoming tournament but Williams, before his Rio 2016 Olympic Sevens bid, will push the duo all the way. Tonga-born Fekitoa provided real game-changing impact from the bench during the Rugby Championship, most notably during the second-half comeback against the Springboks in Johannesburg. A fascinating selection battle awaits.

Manawatu Turbo or Highlanders flyer?

Again, Hansen and his management team have an enviable selection dilemma on their hands. When you’re able to leave players of the calibre of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane back home, it says a lot about outside backs the All Blacks have at their disposal at present.
Highlanders full Ben Smith is nailed-on the start at full-back following another stellar season while Julian Savea, despite an early season form slump, is a shoo-in for left wing spot. The Bus, who has scored 30 tries in 35 Tests, turned up for All Blacks ‘overweight’ and was put through a gruelling three-week training camp to get back up to speed, but Savea’s class is unquestionable and he will be one of the most dangerous strike runners on display.

The supremely-gifted Nehe Milner-Skudder looked odds-on to secure the right wing berth on the back of his breakout season for the Hurricanes and stellar displays for the All Blacks including his two-try showing on debut against the Wallabies in Sydney. Waiseke Naholo’s miraculous recovery from a broken leg, however, has thrown the race wide open again.

The Fiji-born Highlanders star, who almost joined Clermont on a two-year deal back in May, made a barnstorming debut for the All Blacks against Argentina in Christchurch only to crack a fibula during the game effectively ruling him out of the tournament. Naholo returned to his native village of Nadroumai village in Fiji to receive treatment from a traditional healer. After Naholo’s ‘Gift from God’, he was selected in Hansen’s 31-man World Cup squad. With Naholo not likely to be fully fit until New Zealand’s third Pool C game against Georgia, Manawatu star Milner-Skudder will get his chance to impress once more, but things will get interesting once Naholo returns for the clash with the Lelos in Cardiff.

Can the All Blacks claim the William Webb Ellis trophy on foreign soil?

New Zealand WCUP Rugby World Cup France Source: Themba Hadebe

Following 24 years of crushing disappointment and trauma, New Zealand finally removed a nine tonne gorilla from their backs with that nail-biting, if controversial, 8-7 victory over the French at Eden Park four years ago.

With two home World Cups in the bag, the next accusation that will be levelled at Hansen and Co will be if they can follow up their 2011 triumph with a back-to-back win, something that has never been achieved, on foreign soil.

Mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka was crucial to New Zealand’s successful campaign last time out as Richie McCaw and Co ground out a nail-biting victory over a fired-up French side in Auckland.

This current class of Kiwis is certainly as mentally tough as they come. Their comeback victories against Ireland in 2012 (Christchruch) and 2013 (Dublin), England in Auckland during their 2014 summer tour not to mention their Houdini acts against the Springboks in Johannesburg in 2013 and in July, mark them out as a mentally-tough outfit. But that chokers tag will still rear its head during the tournament, and it’s up the World No 1 ranked side to dispel it over the next few months.

 

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