Well the Tri-Nations has been and gone and Mitch has announced the 30 men who will depart our shores to bring back the ultimate prize. The entire original Tri-Nations squad (except Anton Oliver) has made it, plus Byron Kelleher, Ben Blair, Daniel Braid, Mark Hammett and Corey Flynn.
So now that we've seen the All Blacks in action it's time to size them up against their major opposition - South Africa, Australia, England and France. Here follows a preview of what I think we can expect from October & November.
Coach - Eddie Jones
Captain - George Gregan
Recent Form - Not good. They've lost all games they've played against quality opposition in the last 12 months - England (twice), France, Ireland, New Zealand (twice) and even South Africa. 1 win and 3 losses doesn't make pretty reading in the Tri-Nations, whatever the spin their coach might put on it.
Likely Gameplan - Amazingly, probably the "league" style made famous in the late 90's until the Lions Tour which at the time was very successful - but as was exposed by the All Blacks in Sydney doesn't seem to work quite so well now. The Wallabies will try and keep possesion at all costs with Gregan passing a lot more than your average halfback. Perhaps the reason has something to do with the fact that 1/5 of their team will probably be league rejects.
Strengths - Home advantage with the cup being played in Australia, also some fantastic attacking talent in the backs. The biggest advantage the Wallabies possess of course is their uncanny knack of beating New Zealand when it matters most. Despite the Bledisloe success I'm not entirely sure we've shaken that off properly yet - they almost did it again in Auckland.
Weaknesses - A dislike of the tough stuff. Tackle them hard and often and they really don't like it. Remember their whinging after the Brisbane game against the Boks? If you're a half-decent foward pack you should get plenty of metres up the middle. Also it seems to me that they've clung on to their 1999 world cup squad for too long and they're about to pay for it. The likes of Gregan, Burke, Herbert, Kefu, Roff, Noreiga and Paul are probably all past it, but they're going to be integral to Australia's hopes again in 2003.
Will win the world cup if - They can ride the wave of emotion generated by playing in front of sellout crowds all wearing gold, guzzling Fosters and singing Waltzing Matilda. It's happened before so don't go thinking it's a forlorn hope - just ask the Lions and All Black teams of 2001 and 2002.
Coach - Rudolf Strauli
Captain - Corne Krige
Recent Form - Absolutely pathetic. Scratchy wins against Scotland and Argentina, a good win against Australia but other than that have been roundly thrashed by everyone they've played in the last 12 months. Huge defeats by England and New Zealand in particular.
Likely gameplan - What some would call the old "England" gameplan. 10 man rugby with the big Bok fowards working hard to win the ball just so Louis Koen can kick it away.
Strengths - Not many, but for the players they've got they've at least got their gameplan pretty much right. They don't have the backs to play any other way. Louis Koen hardly ever misses either, so if they can win some penalties he's a good bet to put 'em over.
Weaknesses - Defence, attack and a tendancy to completely capitulate when the opposition puts any pressure on. Basically the same as their Super 12 teams. Sums it up really.
Will win the world cup if - Hell freezes.
Coach - Clive Woodward
Captain - Martin Johnson
Recent Form - Nigh perfect. They haven't lost a game since 2002 when they narrowly went down to France. Since then they've beaten all the Southern Hemisphere teams whenever they've played them - including away victories over NZ and Australia showing they can win away from Twickenham too.
Likely Gameplan - Two possible types. The first is the type we saw against the All Blacks in Wellington where the opponents play is slowed down - "negative play" some would call it. They'll probably only use this against New Zealand though because they're good enough to win using their under-rated (by many in the Southern Hemisphere) backline against any other opponent (see the game vs Australia in Melbourne). In any case teams playing England will need to be good boys because Wilko will slot them from anywhere given half a chance.
Strengths - Very tough foward pack - some of those guys make even Taranaki fowards look like pretty boys. They are experienced, grizzled ugly beggars in that England team. Don't forget Jonny Wilkinson who is undoubtably the best 1st 5/8 going around at the moment. The confidence of not tasting defeat for so long must count for something as well.
Weaknesses - Reducing in number every time they run out to play. Some said they can't win away from home, but they've well and truely proven that to be false. If anything I'd say the foward pack IS a bit older than would be desireable - and of course Jonny Wilkinson's brilliance may prove an Achilles heel. If he's injured or plays a poor game, where to then?
Will win the World Cup if - Their forwards can dominate and Wilko can do his thing.
Coach - Bernade Laporte
Captain - Fabien Galthie
Recent Form - About average. Had good results last November vs NZ, Aus and SA but have struggled since. Lost to England and Ireland in Six Nations before sending their dirt-trackers on a tour where they lost to Argentina twice and the All Blacks.
Likely Gameplan - To play like France usually do: play with confidence and utter disregard for what is sensible hoping it pays off, and if it doesn't, c'est la vie!
Strengths - Unpredictable
Weaknesses - Unpredictable! Both a strength and a weakness. You never know which team is going to turn up (a bit like Wellington rugby teams). If they're on a bad day you'll win pretty comfortably but catch them on a good one and you haven't a hope.
Will win the World Cup if - They can string together three good days in a row (quarter, semi and final). The law of averages says this is unlikely, but they could still do us a big favour and beat England for us somewhere along the line!
Coach - John Mitchell
Captain - Reuben Thorne
Recent Form - Pleasing. Apart from the 2 point loss to England first up the All Blacks have formed a pretty solid looking team. The great purge hasn't weakened the side like many feared it would, with a perfect Tri-Nations and Bledisloe campaign coming without names like Randell, Cullen, Lomu, Merhtens and Maxwell. The major concern is England who we've now lost to twice in the last 12 months.
Likely Gameplan - FAST rugby. This is surely confirmed by the selection of Daniel Braid to the world cup team. We've got 3 specialist openside flankers to ensure that whatever happens we will have an effective workhorse to get to the ball quickly. Backed up by some of the fastest wingers in the business and Carlos Spencer, there is little doubt we're looking to win with tries.
Strengths - A cohesive, young foward pack picked on form. They're playing for each other and playing out of their skins - every one of them. Defence has been terrific too giving up an average of slightly more than a try per game. Almost unquestionably the best backs in the world on attack.
Weaknesses - Still question marks over lineout and goalkicking remain. Also, can they play in the wet? Hopefully in November in Australia the turf will be pretty dry and firm - but if it is not the All Blacks might struggle (as they did somewhat in the two Tri-Nations games in Dunedin and Auckland). At the moment we would not want to get into an arm wrestle with England and their monster foward pack.
Will win the world cup if - Firstly they can get to the final - meaning victories over the Boks and Wallabies. From there it will be a question if youth and enthusiasm can triumph over the experience of the Poms. If we can successfully play a fast game in the final I have no doubt we've got what it takes to win our first world cup for 16 years!