For the first time in rugby history, there was not a single team that went undefeated at the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and the All Blacks will be hoping they can replicate that piece of history over the next two months.
The three-time world champions lost the opening match of rugby’s ultimate event on Friday night local time, kicking off a dramatic weekend in France.
It was New Zealand themselves who handed eventual champions South Africa their sole loss at the 2019 tournament, a loss which previously would have been considered damning before the Springboks pioneered a new route to victory.
Before going down to the host nation in Paris, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster threw out a quip that has since taken on a life of its own.
“I’m often asked after 2019 what we’d do differently, I said I’d just throw that first game. It doesn’t sound that good, though, does it?” Foster remarked.
The mere whiff of an All Blacks coach ruminating on the easy route was enough to set some fans off, only exacerbated by the coach’s troublesome tenure with the team.
Those fans can only wait and hope the team was holding tactics back for the knockout stages, while drawing consolation from the fact an imperfect World Cup run has borne fruit before.
It would appear the players also find confidence in the Springboks’ 2019 win.
“You only need to look at what happened four years ago,” Jordie Barrett told reporters in Lyon. “South Africa were world champs and they lost the first game and got a few lessons in that game that put them in great stead for the rest of the tournament and we’re looking to do something similar.
“It’s hot here at the moment and we probably didn’t adapt to those conditions as well as we could have last weekend. We’ve seen teams in the last few days do that as well. Teams without the ball are going a long way to winning some of these test matches, kicking a lot, forcing a lot of mistakes, it’s so hard to hold the ball.
“George Ford (England fly-half) kicked 27 points with 14 men on the park and he was outstanding, and the Welsh made over 200 tackles and an attacking side like Fiji couldn’t cross until the last quarter just because it’s so greasy.
“We found in our game there was only 27 minutes of ball in play which was pretty crazy really. In a match we would like that number to be a bit higher and bring some fatigue into the game and potentially reduce those water breaks, so we can use that to our advantage a little bit more.”
A trademark in the All Blacks’ dominance over the recent decade was a blistering final 20 minutes, where superior fitness in an expansive game sealed tight matches and blew the score out in others.
That dominance fell away over the previous World Cup cycle and a semifinal loss to England cemented the end of that historic era in 2019.
Now, as the weekend’s loss would attest, the final quarter of the game is a vulnerability for New Zealand. France ran home with 18 unanswered points to close the game at Stade de France.
That match did not feature the All Blacks’ youngest Barrett, who was sidelined nursing a knee injury.
“It’s coming along pretty good,” Barrett said on Monday. “A slow 10 or 14 days but it’s on the improve. So, just day-by-day. It’s a funny one really, it’s come on out of nowhere in the past couple of weeks. Just a joint injury and a bit of inflammation but I am getting there and making progress each day.
“I got through today really well which is positive and got through some running. I didn’t do any running last week at all, just been on the watt bike.”