All Blacks legend Andrew Mehrtens won just about every honour there is to win in the game – except a Rugby World Cup winner’s medal.

Twice the fly-half suffered disappointment on the biggest stage of them all, in 1995 and 1999, as the All Blacks failed to justify their pre-tournament favourites’ tag.

As reigning champions and the number one ranked team in the world, a status they have enjoyed for over five years, Steve Hansen’s men will be expected to do what no other side has done and successfully defend the Webb Ellis Cup when the Rugby World Cup kicks off later this year – even if their past European campaigns have ended prematurely.

Mehrtens, though, says the competition is tougher now than it ever was in his glittering 70-cap career and predicts that any one of five teams can realistically win the tournament, with a few shocks thrown in along the way.

“I think they (The All Blacks) are definitely good enough to defend their title, whether they will or not is obviously another matter,” he said. “The great thing is that it is going to be a genuine World Cup; there are a lot of teams going in there who will have a lot of confidence. 

“Teams like Australia aren’t traditionally short of confidence. At the moment they have been living through a pretty lean period in their rugby in terms of the trans-Tasman rivalry with the All Blacks but they are still very dangerous and have a lot of good players. 

“South Africa clearly have history on their side and have big strong guys and every motivation to do well.

“I think playing at home – and the resources they can put into their rugby – makes England a huge threat. The club scene there is really advancing in terms of the player’s skill levels and there's more of an attacking attitude, and that can only help the national team.

“Then you’ve got to look at Ireland and how well they’ve been doing lately. They have shown a lot of cohesion and passion, as you’d expect from Ireland, but it is being very well channelled at the moment under Joe Schmidt.

"You can never count the French out, maybe not over three games from the quarters through to the final, but on their day they can beat anyone.

“I think it is going to be the best tournament ever and thankfully I’m going to be over in the UK following it for two months.”

Living up to the hype

Having missed out in 1991, the All Blacks returned to the northern hemisphere eight years later with high hopes and heavy hype.

“We landed in Heathrow on ‘NZ1’, which had our front row emblazoned on the front of the plane. It was exciting times,” Mehrtens recalls.

The profile of the tournament then, though, was nothing compared to that enjoyed by RWC 2015, where all manner of records from TV broadcast figures to tickets sold are expected to be broken.

“In the 16 years since I last played in it the World Cup has grown and grown,” said Mehrtens.

“A huge amount of Kiwis will be coming across to the mother country, it is a chance for them to not only support the All Blacks – hopefully right through to the final – but also be a part of what I’m sure will be a sensational event.”