Former New Zealand scrumhalf Justin Marshall is backing his country to lift the Rugby World Cup in England. No team has ever won the Webb Ellis Cup back-to-back and the All Blacks look to have the best chance of achieving this feat. Marshall concurs: ‘I certainly think they are the favourites going into this Rugby World Cup. That’s not just a biased comment, it’s their form. Their form demands that. Since 2011 they’ve hardly put a foot wrong. They’re operating at around 93, 94% winning percentage. That’s the best in the world at any sport. Nobody’s winning that much so they deserve to go in as favourites but I’ve been to two World Cups as well and didn’t come out with the result so I certainly appreciate that favoritism brings with it responsibility. You’d prefer, I guess, to be under the radar but also it brings confidence knowing that you are favourites and needing to live up to that tag. This team deserves it because the history in the last four years shows that fact but you know, on any given day the favourites can be knocked out so you have to be aware of that too.’
Indeed the favourites were eliminated in sensation fashion in 1999 when France stormed back from 24-10 down after 44 minutes to win 43-31 against the Kiwis. The men from the land of the long white cloud went down in the 2003 semi-finals to Australia before falling to the French again in 2007 at the quarter-finals. Marshall played in the 1999 and 2003 fixtures and says it was not a case of choking as some might like to say: ‘The opposition. Both times. We suffered losses in 99 and 2003. In 2003 the game that we played against Australia in the semi-final (sic). About six weeks prior in a Tri-Nations game we put 50 points on them and in 99 the French, in the semi-final, had played awful rugby until that point. And they never really emulated that game again. The final (against Australia) was a bit of let down but just to me that reinforced that on the day, when the opposition turn up, it is sport and everybody is capable of beating every one. We were well prepared. We were well-drilled. We were confident but not over confident, not arrogant but the opposition just played so well. We certainly didn’t have poor performances. The opposition were just at a different level to us. That you can’t control. You can only control what you do. Sometimes you need some luck, particularly in 2003. The first 10 minutes we dominated and it looked like we were gonna score a try but then there was an intercept and Stirling Mortlock ran 80 metres and the game game changed, and that can happen too. We had done nothing wrong to deserve that. It was just good work by the opposition so that can happen.’
Many are tipping the host nation as potential title contenders in 2015 but Marshall is not so sure about Stuart Lancaster’s lot: ‘If you had asked me 12 or 14 months ago I would have said England will be tough to beat at home but I think they’ve slipped back a bit. You know they were heavily reliant on the likes of (Manu) Tuilagi at that point. Well he’s no longer involved. He cut the All Blacks open on that day (England defeated the Kiwis 38-21 at Twickenham on 1 December 2012). They had some good players across the board but through injuries, suspensions and idiots like Dylan Hartley, who now can’t get selected, I don’t think they’re the unit they were so … Ireland are the the 6 Nations champions but they also look vulnerable at stages. For me I worry about the southern hemisphere teams. I always do. I think Australia are building quite nicely. They’ve got a dangerous back line. Their forward pack can front a bit and they’ve shown signs that they’re muscling up a bit and never write off South Africa. I’d be stupid to say that you shouldn’t consider France. Their form doesn’t justify them being considered by history shows that at Rugby World Cups they’re pretty good. Who’ll be the main challenger? I think New Zealand and South Africa are due to meet before the final so with them being on the same side of the draw, Australia could get to the final.’
Steve Hansen’s men will kick off its Rugby World Cup campaign at Wembley in London on 20 September against Argentina. Hansen’s side is in Pool C which also includes Georgia, Tonga and Namibia.