Rugby: 'Win World Cup to be NZ's finest'

Rugby: 'Win World Cup to be NZ's finest'

The New Zealand All Blacks were all-conquering in 2013, becoming the first rugby union team in the professional era to win all their Test matches in a calendar year.

Even so, fierce debate has raged after it was revealed that a banner in their dressing room proclaimed: "We are the most dominant team in the history of the world."

For one rugby icon, that lofty tag can only be bestowed on Richie McCaw's men if they retain their World Cup title in England next year.

Justin Marshall, who was capped 81 times in a 10-year international career that ended in 2005, was part of the country's last great line-up, which featured

Jonah Lomu's irrepressible bursts, the creativity of Andrew Mehrtens and Christian Cullen's maze-like runs through bewildered rivals.

He believes that team would hold their own against today's warriors, who won all 14 Test matches last year, including 10 against the other top-five ranked nations.

"Our 1996-1997 team were cracking too, with some real superstars - we lost just once in two years," the Southland native told The Straits Times yesterday.

"The current side play a different brand of rugby because the game is faster and requires fitter forwards. To say they are great is fine, but best ever? They need to win the World Cup on enemy territory first."

The 40-year-old is in Singapore to promote the upcoming World Club 10s championship at the National Stadium.

Recognised for his tactical sense and near-perfect passing, Marshall won five Tri-Nation titles - the most by any player - between 1996 and 2003.

His 24 Test tries are also the most by a New Zealand half-back.

World Cup glory eluded him, though he watched with delight as the latest crop of All Blacks triumphed for the second time on home soil in 2011, repeating their 1987 success.

For all their home comforts - they have been unbeaten at Auckland's Eden Park for 19 years - the Kiwis have never won the Cup on foreign turf.

"They sometimes struggle in the UK, so the million-dollar question is, can they win at Twickenham when it counts?," said Marshall, referring to the iconic London venue that will host next year's final.

"That will separate the great from the greatest."

Marshall tipped the fighting Irish and hosts England to be the All Blacks' main threats next year, outside of perennial rivals Australia and South Africa.

Singaporeans will get a preview of the hard-hitting World Cup action during June's World Club 10s event, the first to be held at the new National Stadium in Kallang.

Yesterday, top French rugby outfit Biarritz Olympique were the latest team to confirm their participation at the eight-club, June 21-22 showpiece.

The two-time runners-up of the Heineken Cup, rugby's equivalent of European football's elite Champions League, will compete alongside Australian powerhouse Brumbies and invitational side Asia Pacific Dragons, who are coached by Marshall and fellow All Blacks legend Tana Umaga.

The five remaining clubs are expected to be named soon.

It is understood that England's Leicester Tigers, Cardiff Blues (Wales) and Munster (Ireland) are in advanced talks, along with the Blues and the Chiefs from New Zealand.

From 14-time French champions Biarritz, fans can expect to see the likes of national players Imanol Harinordoquy, Dimitri Yachvili and Damien Traille.

Biarritz president Serge Blanco, who was one of France's most iconic players with 93 caps between 1980 and 1991, said: "It is a special year for our club, with this being our 100th season.

"The World Club 10s is a perfect end to this important year."

This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.

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