[explanatory note - this started out as a post for the Shaun Edwards thread today, then the discussion moved on and I couldn't post it, so I turned it into a full article and posted it here instead]
New Zealand have been installed as firm favourites for the World Cup, but with three teams going into the last day of the Six Nations with a realistic chance of winning it, could any of them lift the William Webb Ellis trophy in France this winter?
The key to defeating someone is either outplaying them at your own game or countering theirs. [there is the third option of getting lucky, but as a strategy I have never trusted that].
Now we have the advantage that current Kiwi coach Graham Henry used to be in charge of the Lions and Wales. We have a lot of knowledge about him both from the inside and outside.
Henry has always been a systems manager. To his credit he has changed his systems as rugby moved forward (something Phil Larder didn't seem capable of), he is also blessed with two of the outstanding talents in world rugby at 7 and 10, and a pretty useful other 28 players.
Systems can be countered and overcome with better systems or individual brilliance/mistakes. Unfortunately the best players can adapt to an unfolding game (witness Catt and Geraghty's try-creating breaks against France).
So to beat New Zealand you need to both counter Henry's systems and hope that NZ's creative and destructive hubs (McCaw and Carter) don't adapt to what you are doing to beat them.
Since the last World Cup the Kiwis re-built their side. They returned focus to forwards and set plays to go with the fast-running skills that so impressed in 2003, bur were ultimately crushed by Australia's defence.
The forwards broke down their scrummaging technique and improved power 150 per cent, focussed on offloads to cut through a drift defence and adopted a front-on rush-defence to put pressure on the opposition 10 and 12.
They also had several brilliant players emerge/grow/start to fulfil their potential. All of this combined to create their current style.
Wasps have been playing a version of this front-on defence since c2004. It is the system that broke the Leicester/Larder drift-defence hegemony and won them three premierships and a European cup, so not overly surprising that this is the system that broke the Larder/England dominance really.
Additionally, the fast feet and movement over pick-up, drive, set platform, repeat has been seen before in the 6N with Wales' Grand Slam.
But recently, beating these styles has become more common. Leicester, Gloucester, and Bristol all sit above Wasps in the Premiership and Wales look like they could go from Grand Slam winners to Wooden Spoon holders in two years.
Recently South Africa have used a version of the blitz defence to twice beat the Kiwis.
And they, along with Ireland, France, Argentina, and England (if we ever get over out All Black fear) have the ability to beat NZ.
Focussing on England's chances (because I don't know the others)…
England's traditional strengths are forwards, tactical kicking, and drift defence, and they took three years to cotton on that these just weren't working without THAT back row, and Johnson in the pack and Jonny and Greenwood in the backs (the brains and points of the side).
But we have finally learned, and have players that have been schooled in the "new" international style all over the park (the all-Wasps back row should be fun tomorrow). We can learn, we can adapt, and we can play the 'new' style.
Additionally, with the return of Catt we have the brains to break a system, and in Strettle and Geraghty and Tait we have young players capable of beating a man and hitting space, while Flood looks happy offloading and unsettling oppositions by mixing kicks, passes and runs according to the situation (his chip to himself when the French tried to blitz him was evidence of intelligence and improvisation, and the way he dismissed the attentions of Betsen was also a plus).
And in Strettle, Tait, and Flood we are seeing the fruits of out recent sevens and youth teams start to filter through to the senior side - something that has been too long in coming.
However, there are also older hands that deserve a place. Lucy, Cueto, Robinson, Tindal, Wilkinson, Moody, and Corry are still here and playing. Can we really ignore so many World Cup winners? Getting the blend right will be key.
Whether we can beat the All Blacks at their own game is another question - but if we can make France look slow and off the pace then we can do it to a lot of teams.
Ultimately, though, it's not a question of copying the All Blacks, it's about getting the best out of your team and stopping the opposition.
England have the players and the coach in place to do this - whether this will be enough is another question.