All Blacks installed as favourites

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PARIS, September 7 – The in-form All Blacks have been installed as firm favourites for the next Rugby World Cup, which will kick off in one year's time in New Zealand.Although much can happen over 12 months in a physical contact sport where most national teams can rarely name full rosters because of the high injury rate, there is no doubting the strength the All Blacks currently enjoy.

The fact that the World Cup is in New Zealand will pile the pressure on Graham Henry’s team, who are unbeaten in the Tri-Nations this year.

After breezing through their pool matches in the 2007 World Cup in France, beating Portugal (108-13), Romania (85-8) and Scotland (40-0), the Kiwis came unstuck against the French in the quarter-finals, going down 20-18.

Since winning the inaugural World Cup it co-hosted with Australia in 1987, beating France 29-9 in the final, there has in fact been little for All Blacks fans to cheer about.

They lost the 1995 final to South Africa, famously crashed 43-31 to France in the 1999 semi-finals, and went down 22-10 to Australia at the same stage in 2003.

"Chokers" is not a tag the All Blacks dare dream of being labelled with in front of their own fervent fans, something former captain Sean Fitzpatrick, now a much respected pundit, didn’t think would happen.

"Graham Henry has been picking his best team for the whole Tri-Nations and that has given us continuity, momentum and a calm confidence under fire that allowed us to stay focused and deliver a win at the death," Fitzpatrick said.

"While he may use the autumn internationals to fill some gaps and cover key positions, Henry has clearly changed his approach.

"He’s a smart man. The game has evolved and he has developed the All Blacks to capitalise on the changes.

"Certainly the coaching team and senior players all know where they’re going and what they’re trying to do, and the whole group is gelling nicely."

The former hooker, writing in the New Zealand Herald, added: "The question of course remains. Will we, as many (mainly northern hemisphere) pundits predict, choke when it comes to the main event?

"Time will tell, but you can take it from me as someone who knows when a team is feeling right that this group of All Blacks is drawing together, and becoming more than the sum of its parts.

"Of course it is way too early to be clearing a space on the mantlepiece but, I tell you what, we’re absolutely right where we need to be at the moment in terms of team development.

"I wouldn’t change a thing."

Captain Richie McCaw, the linchpin to the All Blacks side, also brushed off ideas that his team was peaking too early.

"If you think you’ve got room for improvement and keep aiming to do that there’s no reason you can’t get any better and as long as you keep that attitude you can give yourself a good chance," McCaw said.

England are the sole northern hemisphere team to have won a World Cup, Jonny Wilkinson kicking an extra-time drop-goal to claim victory in 2003 over Australia.

But it is difficult to see who will challenge the SANZAR nations for the crown this time around.

Both Australia and South Africa have been overshadowed by the All Blacks in this year’s Tri-Nations, which completely outshone the 2010 Six Nations won by France.

The Wallabies were shown to still have problems with their front five, while the Springboks won only one game, meaning embattled coach Peter de Villiers will now face a review into the disastrous run of results.

However, both countries ultimately boast strong squads that will likely be in the running to challenge on the World Cup stage.

England shocked most pundits by beating Australia and France en route to the 2007 final, which they narrowly lost to South Africa.

Their form since then has been sketchy, and coach Martin Johnson will be looking for some solid displays in November internationals and next season’s Six Nations to set the team on the right course.

Wales and Ireland have both claimed Grand Slams in recent years, but both still struggle to win against southern hemisphere teams.

The Welsh suffered a disastrous outing two years ago, losing to Fiji and exiting at the group stage, while Ireland have never got beyond the quarter-final stage.

Argentina, who beat France for third place in 2007, have been drawn in a tough Pool B alongside England and Scotland, Argentina will again look to the silky skills of Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Hernandez to lead the way.

With an experienced pack, the Pumas are capable of shocking anyone on their day, as proved by their 41-13 drubbing of France in the summer.

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