September 20, 2019 / 4:59 AM / a month ago

Most open World Cup in years good for game - All Blacks' Hansen

YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - As many as six teams could win this year’s World Cup, double the number of contenders four years ago, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said on Friday ahead of his side’s opening clash with South Africa, one of the tournament’s other favourites.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup - New Zealand's news conference - Yokohama Stadium, Yokohama, Japan, September 20, 2019. New Zealand's head coach Steve Hansen looks on. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

The All Blacks’ decade-long reign at the top of the world rankings came to an end in recent weeks, first losing the mantle to 2019 Six Nations winners Wales and then Ireland, who won the northern hemisphere’s premier annual tournament the year before.

While the ranking system is imperfect given Ireland’s ascent actually followed a disappointing 2019, South Africa and Australia both finishing ahead of New Zealand in this year’s Rugby Championship makes this the most open World Cup since the tournament began in 1987.

“They are always competitive - it always makes me chuckle when I hear this team can’t win and this team is going to win. But right now you’ve got a number of sides that are capable of winning it because they’ve go the talent in their group,” Hansen told a news conference.

“There’s probably more in this tournament than normal, probably in the last one there was two or three, this one there’s five or six which is great for rugby.”

New Zealand, winners of the last two tournaments, have the ability to get the job done for a third successive time, Hansen said, expecting a “tight, titanic struggle” up front against the physical Springboks in Saturday’s Pool B opener.

No more than two points have separated the sides in their last four meetings, with the most recent 16-16 draw in Wellington in July helping South Africa towards their first Rugby Championship title in a decade.

New Zealand had hammered South Africa by a record 57-0 in the meeting prior to that in 2017 and Hansen credited the improvements his opposite number Rassie Erasmus has made in their rival’s defence and fitness since taking charge last year.

Hansen retained Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf for the game, making Beauden Barrett’s move to fullback a more permanent one and he backed the Canterbury Crusaders’ playmaker to follow in the footsteps of some All Black greats in his World Cup debut.

“He plays some scintillating rugby at times, he’s very good with ball in hand, he’s got pace, a good kicking game, great vision so he’s got all the attributes to be a wonderful, wonderful player,” Hansen said.

“He follows in the footsteps of some of the greats, he’s playing with one of the current ones who is playing back at fullback... He’s got the mental fortitude to announce himself come Saturday.”

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Sam Holmes

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