The Rugby World Cup starts this weekend (if you weren’t already aware…) and the All Blacks quest for a fourth title and third consecutive one faces its sternest opening test when they line up against the old foes in dark green.
But what of the squad itself? How does it compare with the lot that took the Webb Ellis Cup over to ol’ Blighty four years and returned with it? Is it – for want of a better term – better or worse man-for-man than that successful team?
While there are many faces returning, for the purposes of this exercise we’re matching them up against the player in the same role for the last RWC.
2015: Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, Codie Taylor
2019: Coles, Taylor, Liam Coltman
Age and injuries have robbed Coles of some of his dynamism (so a loss), while Taylor is both better now than he was four years ago and represents a gain on the veteran Mealamu in the comparable role. Coltman offers something different on the field though it’s a coin flip as to whether he’s an upgrade in the third hooker role over Taylor.
2015: Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock, Joe Moody, Pauliasi Manu
2019: Moody, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Ofa Tu’ungafasi
The hardest group to compare since there’s complete turnover, albeit with the caveat that Moody was an injury replacement who started at Twickenham. That said, he’s a downgrade on Woodcock while on the other side you’re trying to compare apples and oranges with Laulala and Owen Franks being different players; I’m going to sit on the fence there.
Behind that starting duo Tu’ungafasi is an upgrade on Ben Franks and Moli perhaps shades Crockett, but Faumuina edges Ta’avao.
There’s also the experience factor, with this group having just 101 Test caps between them compared to Woodcock having 115 alone going into the 2015 edition.
2015: Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock
2019: Retallick, Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipolotu
This one is relatively easy. Retallick and Whitelock aren’t the forces that they were last RWC and that’s without considering the big question of when (or if) Big Brodie makes it onto the field. Scott Barrett is an upgrade on Luke Romano however with Tuipolotu being taken as opposed to another loose forward is difficult to make a comparison, but arguably he’ll see more game time than Liam Messam did in the UK.
2015: Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Liam Messam, Kieran Read, Victor Vito
2019: Cane, Read, Shannon Frizell, Ardie Savea, Matt Todd
Let’s start with the obvious ones. The skipper isn’t the player he was four years ago and there’s the whispers that if he didn’t have the (c) after his name he might not even be there. It’s also rather unfair on Sam Cane as the starting openside too, if only because he’s compared here to the Greatest All Black of the professional era. On the other side it’s a good argument that the 2019 vintage Ardie Savea is an upgrade on Kaino, but its stretch to suggest that Todd is one over 2015 Cane and it’s no-contest in Frizell versus Vito in favour of the latter.
2015: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith
2019: Perenara, Smith, Brad Weber
Like the hookers this is made somewhat easier by having two of the three back. While still very very good Aaron Smith was a better player four years ago though conversely TJ Perenara is an improved article and represents an upgrade on Kerr-Barlow who usurped him as the second-choice during the 2015 tournament. It’s harder to compare 2015 Perenara with 2019 Weber; both were outstanding in the corresponding Super Rugby seasons though Perenara ran out of gas by the end of 2015 (leading to TKB passing him in the pecking order) while Weber hasn’t had near the same workload but doesn’t have the experience either so for that reason its 2015 Perenara by a nod.
2015: Beauden Barrett, Dan Carter, Colin Slade
2019: Barrett, Richie Mo’unga
It’s important to remember here that four years ago both Slade and Beauden Barrett also had utility value as fullbacks, and in Slade’s case a winger as well. But in terms of straight up comparison, while as outstanding as he is, is the 2019 edition of Barrett better than the 2015 vintage Carter was? I’m going to say no. On the flip side Mo’unga easily trumps Slade.
2015: Malakai Fekitoa, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams
2019: Williams, Anton Lienart-Brown, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue
Lets just deal with this straight up:
2015 Nonu vs 2019 Williams – Nonu
2015 Smith vs 2019 Goodhue – Goodhue
2015 Williams vs 2019 Crotty – Williams
2015 Fekitoa vs 2019 Lienart-Brown – Lienart-Brown
2015: Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea, Ben Smith
2019: Smith, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece
Like most returnees the earlier version of Ben Smith is the better one, and on the left it’s a bit of push between Savea and Ioane, but Julian’s place in the starting lineup four years ago wasn’t in the same level of doubt that Rieko’s is now so the Miramar bus edges that argument. With Reece having assumed the incumbency on the right his comparison is Milner-Skudder, and while he shown to be a high-class finisher he isn’t quite at peak-Nehe level, and only one-eyed Cantabrian’s will argue that Bridge now is better than Naholo then.
Then there’s the two sons of Smiley. Nominally a 10, Beauden was used mainly as a weapon off the bench at fullback four years ago where he was incredibly effective and to an extent sent a template the All Blacks use today. Jordie was picked in part for his utility value and ability to play anywhere from 11 to 15 (and 10 in a pinch), but its hard to see him providing the same impact his older brother did if pressed into the same role.
So to sum it up, there’s only nine or so places in the squad where there’s an upgrade of any sort on 2015 and only a few where it’s completely clear. That’s no slight on the current crop however, as the 2015 team is probably not just our best squad in terms of talent, but probably the best in RWC history.
Can this team bring the Webb Ellis back here? Absolutely, but given the extent that the rest of the world have closed the gap it’ll be far from easy.
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