Ben Smith Rugby World Cup: All Blacks vulnerable – or reinvented?

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Ben Smith Ardie Savea is a key member of the mobile All Blacks back row.

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Ardie Savea is a key member of the mobile All Blacks back row.

Steve Hansen dismissed criticism of his New Zealand side this week, just as in 2015 when some questioned whether, at the ages of 34 and 33 respectively, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were creaking too much for their last hurrah to be successful.

Except the criticism this time is not so easily swatted away. How could it be? The “peripheral noise” feels more justifiable this time.

For a start, Hansen’s current crop have had to negotiate a unique leadership vacuum as they bid for three successive global titles. As well as McCaw and Carter, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu, Jerome Kaino and Conrad Smith all stepped away from international duty prior to this Rugby World Cup cycle. Hansen excluded Owen Franks from his 31-man squad for Japan, concerned about the tighthead prop’s mobility. Each of those eight players mentioned sit within the top 14 most-capped All Blacks of all time. Wayne Smith, the intuitive, conscientious and popular coach and mentor, also left the set-up.

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In addition, in the past year New Zealand have lost three times – the same number of defeats they suffered over 71 outings between September 2011 and November 2016. South Africa rattled them last September. Ireland kept them try-less two months later. Australia ruthlessly capitalised on Scott Barrett’s red card this August.

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* RWC: Full schedule and pools
* Guide to RWC coverage on Stuff
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* Download Stuff’s RWC wallchart

There was a curiously clunky run of five matches in which they failed to score more than 20 points on four occasions – against England, Ireland, Argentina and the Springboks. For context, that has only happened 12 times in total since the start of 2012.

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