A s New Zealand attempt the unprecedented feat of winning the Rugby World Cup for the third time in a row, they arrive in Japan bolstered by many of the factors that underpinned their belated winning campaigns in 2011 and 2015, but much else has changed.
Head coach Steve Hansen will be attending the World Cup for a fifth time; he was Wales head coach in 2003, an assistant to All Blacks coach Graham Henry in 2007 and 2011, and head coach in his own right in 2015.
Hansen brings a thread of experience and continuity to this campaign on which New Zealand will heavily rely. A small group of players, including captain Kieran Read, will be competing at their third World Cup, and a larger group will be taking part in the tournament for the second time, adding to the experience base on which their challenge is founded.
While that gives New Zealand a sense of continuity, they will defend the Webb Ellis Trophy in changing times. Unlike in 2011 and 2015, the All Blacks will not begin this World Cup as the top-ranked team in world rugby: that distinction belongs now to Ireland who in recent weeks superseded Wales as world No.1.
The New Zealanders may remain hot favourites but their lost ranking indicates they will face a much broader challenge than they did in the two preceding tournaments.
There is an impression that their form has declined over the past four years, and more speedily in the last two, highlighted by their tied series against the British and Irish Lions in 2017, two losses to Ireland and a recent record loss to Australia in Perth.
These performances suggest the All Blacks are not as confident under pressure as they were in 2015, when they had stand-off Dan Carter and captain Richie McCaw in command. Read is a less charismatic captain than McCaw, and Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett have not risen to Carter’s level at stand-off.
Most teams, and notably South Africa who beat New Zealand in 2018 and drew with them this year, have figured out how to nullify the All Blacks’ attack with smothering defence. The yardstick of the All Blacks’ form may come in their first match of the tournament against the Springboks on Saturday. And captain Siya Kolisi’s personal story may give the Springboks something extra, something that can’t be created on a practice field.
The Rainbow Nation is galvanised behind their historic first ever black Test rugby captain. The 28-year-old flanker, pictured left, came from an impoverished background in a township outside the city of Port Elizabeth to reach what’s considered the pinnacle of South African sport.
“When I put on a jersey I remind myself who I’m playing for, everybody who has ever been hungry, everybody who’s ever struggled financially, everybody who has walked to school without shoes on,” said Kolisi.