New Zealand have and always will be one of the teams to beat in a rugby tournament, regardless of what competition it is and what state they are in, and their historical achievements can never be taken away from them or belittled in any way.
However, when looking at the current squad, it is clear that there has been a slight shift in the air, with the retirements of some of the star names of recent times, such as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, taking some of the quality away and leaving the All Blacks with a few more chinks in their armour than they had previously shown.
This is one of the main reasons why they have had a mixed time of things lately, with their 2022 season seeing them end last year’s Autumn internationals unbeaten, but suffering defeats to Argentina and South Africa and a 2-1 series loss to Ireland.
In 2023, that lack of consistency has been just as prominent, with them securing convincing wins against Argentina, South Africa and twice against Australia, before falling to a convincing defeat against the Springboks at Twickenham Stadium in their final match before the Rugby World Cup gets underway.
Nevertheless, this is still New Zealand, and they can never and should never be counted out of anything and will always attract fans regardless of what form they are in.
This will be the second of three consecutive World Cups for the All Blacks in which they will have a new face at the helm, with Steve Hansen leading the team in Japan four years ago before stepping down, Ian Foster currently in charge and current Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson taking over once the tournament reaches its conclusion.
Foster has not been as successful as his immediate predecessors, leading to the confirmation of his departure after the World Cup, with Hansen and Graham Henry picking up an 86.9% and 85.4% win percentage respectively whilst Foster has only managed to win 69% of his games in charge so far.
However, it is not just that that has led to fans turning on him at times, because the manner of some of their defeats and the teams that they have been losing against has also added to the pressure.
It was telling that Foster’s coaching team was removed last year following a particularly poor run and new assistants were appointed by those above him, including former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt who initially joined as an advisor and is now attack coach.
To some, it was a mystery why Foster managed to retain his post at that point, despite the obvious displeasure from the stands during his tenure, and whether he leaves on a positive note or not remains to be seen.
There are several distinct characteristics to New Zealand’s attacking play, with a lot of what they do in possession coming down to executing basics correctly and opening up spaces around the field.
However, there are different ways that they look to do this, with them known for their ability to adapt depending on how their opponents set up against them, and they do have a tendency to switch between tactics during matches.
Against more physical sides, the All Blacks have looked to delay passes and draw players in, taking them out of the game and creating spaces outside them, whilst those that have not been as strong and have shown defensive deficiencies have been exploited through more direct play.
There is a lot of glamour and plenty of nice touches to their play, even during the difficult moments, but it is not always about putting on a show. Instead, as with any team, New Zealand are just as capable of grinding out a win and going through the motions when they need to as any team are, and they really are a team that can find different ways to win and will be a threat no matter who they are coming up against.
The defence is where they have had a few issues, with them making plenty of basic errors that have led to tries being scored against them far too easily. This was part of the reason for them going on a poor run and it was clear at Twickenham that poor passes and players switching off made it easy for South Africa to break them down.
What will be frustrating for those who have witnessed those mistakes is that they can be very easily avoided, with them sometimes coming down to a lack of awareness, such as box kicks being attempted and charged down through players not looking around them first, and sometimes a lack of numbers being present in dangerous areas which has invited teams to run through them at will.
Whilst they will have taken confidence from their unbeaten Autumn internationals campaign and the opening rounds of the 2023 Rugby Championship, they will know that there is still a lot of work to do if they want to have a serious shot at winning another World Cup title this year.
As mentioned, so much of what makes New Zealand a dangerous opponent to face is their ability to attack in almost any way possible, and, whilst that does come down to every player doing what is needed, it is impossible to see them continually adapting between styles without their half-backs.
Time after time, players like Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga are at the heart of the All Blacks’ attempts to control the tempo of matches and to make good decisions with the ball, and a lot of what they do well generally results from either a clever pass or an accurate kick.
They do have a range of options in the half-back areas, and so it will be interesting to see who starts in these roles in France, because getting the right combination on the field will be essential if New Zealand are to get on the front foot and show that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
It seems a little bizarre to predict anything other than a tournament win for the All Blacks, but the truth of the matter is that, since the last World Cup, when they exited in the semi-finals after a defeat to England, they have gone downhill and will not be seen as the outright favourites to lift the Webb-Ellis Cup.
Given the strength of teams like France, Ireland and South Africa at the moment (all of whom are in their side of the draw), another semi-final would be a solid tournament for them (even if the fans expect more) and it would at least show that they can still compete on the world stage, as well as giving them something to build on as they enter another coaching transition.