FORMER ALL BLACKS captain Sean Fitzpatrick believes Ireland and England pose the biggest threat to New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup, indicating that Joe Schmidt’s side “have real depth” in the squad to win.

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The reigning champions are seeking a third successive crown at the tournament in Japan, and are favourites to complete that feat when the action gets underway later this year.

Fitzpatrick, who won a World Cup with New Zealand in 1987, still backs his home country as “the team to beat”, but suspects that Ireland and England are the top contenders to steal their crown.

“I always thought that the major challenge would come from the northern hemisphere and I still think that after what happened in the autumn and what’s happening in the Six Nations,” Fitzpatrick was quoted by Sky Sports as saying in his role as the chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy.

Despite an opening-day wobble in the Six Nations, Ireland will go into the World Cup after recording their first victory over the All Blacks on home soil last year in a thrilling contest in Dublin.

That result came just one week after Eddie Jones’s charges gave them a real scare, only to narrowly lose out at the death.

“England have really gone to another level,” Fitzpatrick continues, “Ireland have real depth and to win World Cups, you need depth, and Ireland’s got that without question and so have England.

“You throw those two in there along with Wales, who are on the most unbelievable winning streak at the moment, and then you’ve got South Africa and you can never write Australia off.

“It’s going to be hugely, hugely competitive.”

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