Uptight and upset: here are two scenes from the last World Cup, in 2003. Three weeks out, the All Blacks held an open training session in Nelson, atop New Zealand's South Island. As the players turned it on for the 5,000 spectators, TIME's reporter asked squad official Matt McIlraith for a brief interview with the coach, John Mitchell, who was overseeing practice the way a chess master examines the board. While he didn't quite scoff, McIlraith made it clear there was precisely zero chance of the request being granted. Mitchell wasn't feeding the chooks anymore, he said. He was all business.
Scene two unfolded seven weeks later, approaching midnight on a Saturday in November, when Mitchell filed into a room in the bowels of Sydney's Telstra Stadium to face the world's media. In a boilover, his side had just lost its semi-final against Australia. Mitchell's black blazer highlighted the absence of color in his face. With dignity, he answered every question, some of them insulting like, "Did you have a game plan tonight?" But he looked and sounded like a man who'd just foreseen the end of the world. Within a month, the New Zealand Rugby Union sacked him.
Mitchell became another casualty of a failure that drives his country mad. More or less constantly since the first Cup in 1987, the All Blacks have been the world's outstanding team. In the years between Cups, they routinely trounce everyone. Yet that first Cup of '87 is the only one they've won. This makes them the Sergei Bubka of rugby and don't they hate it. "The truth is, we do tend to fall over and we're sick of it," says All Black great Frank Bunce on the eve of the sixth World Cup, which begins on Sept. 7 and climaxes at Paris's Stade de France on Oct. 20. "But this time we're ready to claim what we think is ours."
Does the Blacks' Cup history make them chokers? You could argue that, but it's a tough call. At Lansdowne Road, Ireland, in '91, they lost in the semis to a Wallabies team ignited by the mercurial David Campese. In Johannesburg in '95, a food-poisoning outbreak wrecked their preparation for the final, which was won by the hosts in extra time. At Twickenham in '99, France lived up to their somewhat spurious reputation for summoning bursts of inspired attack to overwhelm a Blacks team that had been cruising in their semi-final.
Only their '03 exit ushered by a Wallabies unit that had staggered into the semis could be attributed to the Kiwis crumbling. Former All Black Eric Rush says he saw that loss coming after speaking to a few of the players in the lead-up. "There was a lot of pressure on them, a lot of expectation, and the way they dealt with that was to treat it like just another game," says Rush. "And that's exactly how they played it" only to be swamped by an opponent high on fervor.
Four years later, rivals are exploring the power of suggestion. At a farewell for the Wallabies in Sydney on Aug. 22, former captain Phil Kearns said the All Blacks had peaked 18 months ago against the British Lions. "They haven't played as well since and I think they're starting to worry," said Kearns, who predicts the Cup favorites will be bidding au revoir in the quarter-finals. The Wallabies' Cup-winning coach of '99, Rod Macqueen, questioned whether the Blacks had the versatility to play more than one style. French mentor Bernard Laporte has accused them of playing to the limit of the rules and exploiting weak refereeing.
It's mostly hot air, which All Blacks coach Graham Henry has been cutting through in the build-up to the Blacks' opening match against Italy in Marseilles on Sept. 8. Henry sounds like the opposite of a man in denial: "The success of our rugby team is important to the psyche of the nation we understand that, we agree with that and we live by that." Under the former headmaster, the All Blacks have been potent, winning 38 of their 43 matches since the last Cup. In that time, they've dominated the two sides ranked immediately below them, Australia and France, running up 61 points against les Bleus in Wellington in June.
Of course, we've seen this form before from the Blacks between Cups. "This is different," says Bunce. "Henry and his management team have pretty much done every single thing possible in terms of preparing the squad." This has included rotating players with the aim of creating depth in every position: when someone gets hurt, Henry wants the substitute to be just or almost as good. It's been an unpopular policy at times, says Bunce, "but it gives me confidence." So do the players including a peerless loose-forward trio of Jerry Collins, captain Richie McCaw and Rodney So'oialo, and Dan Carter, who exemplifies the difference between a great fly-half and a fly-half who's a great kicker, like England's Jonny Wilkinson. "We have guys," says Bunce, "who can break games open."
The Blacks aren't without their frailties. Their lineout can let them down and they've been stronger in the centers in the past. While their scrum's good, it's less of a weapon than South Africa's. If it's not to be New Zealand's time, then who else can win? Probably only Australia or the Springboks, with France a possibility on home soil. Rush acknowledges the physical strength of the South Africans but doubts they have the flair to repeat their '95 win. "Their method is to batter you into submission and then score," he says. "But it's hard to batter teams in finals everyone's too up for it." England have gone backward since '03, and reaching the last four would be a good result for the defending champions, though it's unlikely they see it that way.
Under as much pressure as the All Blacks is rugby itself, which can ill afford a tournament full of messy, dour, defence-dominated matches at the pointy end. If that happens, calls to revise the laws to give the attacking side more room will be hard for the game's guardians to ignore. With days to go, the signs point to a close-fought event; but to the relief of the All Blacks' hard-marking countrymen, they also suggest that a historical anomaly and a nation's frustration are about to be dispatched.