Sean Fitzpatrick: Northern Hemisphere sides pose biggest threat to All Blacks

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Story highlights

  • Former NZ captain Fitzpatrick speaks to CNN
  • Says England, Ireland, Scotland threaten All Blacks
  • European sides contest ongoing Six Nations
  • Ireland unbeaten with two rounds remaining

(CNN)While rugby's origins reside in 19th Century England, international silverware in the modern game has traditionally been won by Southern Hemisphere countries.

Of the eight World Cup tournaments, England's victory in 2003 is the only time the trophy has been won by a Northern Hemisphere side; one of either Australia, South Africa and New Zealand have claimed the rest and been represented in every final.
With the All Blacks, world champions in 2011 and 2015, still ranked as the best test side in the world, many would argue this pattern is unlikely to change ahead of next year's tournament.
    But with eyes currently on the Six Nations tournaments, one former All Blacks captain thinks there's every reason to believe a European side could emerge victorious in Japan.
    "We talk about where the major threat to the All Blacks is going to come from in 2019 -- you'd have to say the Northern Hemisphere at the moment in terms of Scotland, Ireland, England," Sean Fitzpatrick, who won the inaugural World Cup with New Zealand in 1987 and skippered the side that was defeated by South Africa in the 1995 final, told CNN Sport.
    "And even France, who knows what France can do in the next 18 months."

    Momentum shift?

    While the All Blacks will be the team to beat at the World Cup in Japan next year, Australia and South Africa have stumbled.
    The Springboks, with players drifting overseas to play club rugby in Europe, have endured poor recent form that resulted in parting with coach Allister Coetzee, who oversaw just 11 wins in 25 tests.
    Under newly-installed boss Rassie Erasmus, South Africa will hope for a turnaround in results after recent losses to Ireland and Wales.
    While the Wallabies defeated New Zealand for the first time in eight games last year, they too came unstuck against their Northern Hemisphere counterparts, suffering comprehensive defeats to England and Scotland.
    The good news for those Northern Hemisphere contenders is that the All Blacks, for a long time the world's No. 1 ranked side, have appeared vulnerable.
    The British and Irish Lions secured an unlikely series draw in New Zealand last year, before Scotland came within inches of securing its first ever victory over the All Blacks in Edinburgh.
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    Six Nations 2018: Who wins?

    The first signs that Scotland could replicate the performances produced against Southern Hemisphere sides last year were evident in its recent Six Nations showing against England.
    Fitzpatrick is full of praise for Gregor Townsend's men after they beat their age-old rival for the first time in a decade.
    "Gregor did a great job in terms of working out a game plan to put pressure on the English and they just never got an opportunity," he says.
    "Even at halftime people were thinking 'oh, Scotland can't keep doing this' and they came out and played with a huge degree of confidence. They took advantage and they'll be very, very pleased.
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    "The confidence they'll get from that going forward and now traveling to the Aviva [Stadium, in Ireland] -- I don't think they'll be too worried about that at all."
    That 25-13 victory puts Scotland in contention to win its first ever Six Nations championship in the current format, something few would have predicted following a crushing opening round defeat by Wales.
    Ireland, however, remains the only unbeaten side and favorite to lift the title as the tournament draws to a close.
    "They've had a pretty good run, they got out of jail with France," says Fitzpatrick, "I think they'll be the first ones to admit that.
    "And then having the three games at home has been an advantage and they've taken advantage of that. They've played very well and they're a good team. They're coached very well, Joe Schmidt's done a wonderful job," added Fitzpatrick, referring to Ireland's coach, who is a New Zealander.
    "A number of their players played very well in the summer during the Lions and they seem to have grown. They're in a good place only 18 months out from the World Cup."
    It's unlikely, though, that any Irish players have even half a thought on next year's World Cup.
    A dramatic, long-range Johnny Sexton drop-goal in Paris on the first weekend could yet prove to be the moment that saved and sealed Ireland's 2018 Six Nations campaign.
    The opportunity is there to win a first grand slam since 2009 and first title since 2015. Just the not so small hurdles of England and Scotland stand in the way.