Rugby World Cup France 2007

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

South Africa win the Rugby World Cup in an exciting Final Match

In a very exciting game, South Africa got their second World Cup title, by reaching a 15-6 win over defending champions England in a dour final where all points came from penalty kicks at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis.

Indeed, Percy Montgomery, Springboks full-back, kicked four penalties with 20-year-old centre Francois Steyn booting one, allowing South Africa to put their hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time since winning it on home soil in 1995.

"It's really incredible," admitted Bryan Habana, South Africa winger.

"Our president (Thabo Mbeki) is here. And it's been an incredible seven weeks and we really appreciate the support we have received here."

Despite holding their own for most of the match in both defence and kicking duels, England could not avenge the humiliating 36-0 loss to the Boks in the pool stage five weeks ago.

And they once again displayed grit in the forwards with the determined scrummaging and defence that saw them through the quarters and semi-final, but could only get into good enough position for two penalties from fly-half Jonny Wilkinson.

As the clash wore on, and with South Africa out to a nine point lead, the British team tried in vain to spin the ball wide but looked well out of their depth when diverting from their tight, forward-based game plan.

"We can't fault effort and the heart," said Martin Corry, England forward. "It's a shame that all that spirit counts for nothing. We gave it everything but it didn't go according to plan.

It's was obvious that England's frustration was summed up when Wilkinson attempted a long-range drop-goal with minutes remaining when what his side really needed was a converted try.

After the game, in Johannesburg the celebrations were unstoppable.

And even those who knew little about the game of rugby were out in force, spurring their team on to World Cup glory.

We must consider that Rugby is predominantly played by white people in South Africa, but it is hoped that with the success of a multi-cultural team, including try-scoring superstar Habana, the sport will go through a transformation and become popular with all colours.

"Habana is our hero, and this win shows transformation within the team," the fans added. "It's not just a white man's sport, it's a rainbow nation sport. And the players were not only representing the nation, but the whole of Africa."

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Argentina, England, France and South Africa reach the Rugby World Cup Semifinals

Argentina Rugby team staved off a strong late Scottish fightback to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time, winning 19-13 Sunday in an encounter that simply had no chance of matching the drama of the other three quarter-finals.

Now, the four teams of the semifinals are defined: England's tense victory over Australia gave the British side the pass. Also France reached the semis with an incredible comeback triumph against New Zealand. And despite Fiji's valiant, but vain attempt to beat the rivals, South Africa qualified too. Now, Argentina's win over the Scots completed an exciting figure in this Cup.

The game had a thrilling finish, however, with Scotland camped on the Pumas line seeking a matchwinning try which eventually never came.

Gonzalo Longo Elia's first half try opened up a 13-3 lead for the South Americans who at least became the first team from outside the Tri-or Six Nations to reach the last four. Their prize is a game against South Africa, which beat Fiji 37-20 earlier Sunday.

"I think we were very tired and Scotland played really well, so we just stuck with it," Argentina scrum half Agustin Pichot expressed. "We are very pleased to be in the semifinals".

Now the Pumas will play against South Africa. The Springboks beat Fiji 37-20 on Sunday in Marseille to reach the semi-finals.

It's important to mention that aSouth Africa scored five tries through Jacque Fourie (14th minute), John Smit (35th minute), Jon-Paul Roger Pietersen (50th minute), Juan Smith (69th minute) and Butch James (80th minute).

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New Zealand is devastated for their elimination in the Rugby World Cup

With a suitcase full of questions and frustration, New Zealand Rugby team goes back home from the World Cup today, seeking a new coach and answers to why the top- ranked team underachieves at the sport's biggest event.

Indeed, following the All Blacks' quarterfinal defeat to France in Cardiff, the New Zealand Rugby Union yesterday said a coach will be appointed by Christmas, bringing a likely end to Graham Henry's four-year tenure and passing on the duty of guiding the national squad to a first title since 1987.

We think that Henry has the worst World Cup record of the five All Blacks coaches whose teams have flopped after entering as the favorites. Hours before New Zealand's 20-18 loss, defending champion England advanced to a semifinal against the French by beating Australia, which is also seeking a new head coach.

"This is the All Blacks' worst result in six Cups and Henry and his fellow selectors will have to live with that," former All Blacks prop John Drake, a World Cup winner in 1987, wrote in an important newspaper. "I hope the country doesn't get silly about it. Much of what they have achieved over their four years had been impressive.''

It's important to mention that as New Zealanders sought reasons for their team's worst World Cup performance, more than half of those polled online by the Herald today said they wanted Henry to remain as coach.

The All Blacks began this year's tournament in France as the bookmakers' favorite after winning 37 of 42 matches following their defeat by Australia in the 2003 semifinals. In fact, after racking up 309 points in pool play -- the most by any team in World Cups -- Henry's team lost its first must-win game.

"Deja vu all over again...and again...and again," headlined the Herald on its front page.

We must remember that New Zealand led France 13-0 after half an hour at the Millennium Stadium two days ago, only to allow two tries after the break and concede the lead with 10 minutes remaining. All Blacks center Luke McAlister missed a 50-meter drop goal in the last minute.

The latest failure carried echoes of the 1999 semifinal between the sides when France recovered a 14-point deficit to win 43-31. New Zealand had been seeking an eighth straight victory against over the French.

"All we can contemplate now is the fact that we have been reminded, once again, that whatever happens prior to contests of this nature holds no real relevance," Robbie Deans, coach of record six-time Super 14 champions Canterbury Crusaders, declares.

In fact, New Zealand's exit may partly be explained by the selectors' policy of rotating players, former All Blacks including 1987 World Cup-winning captain David Kirk said.

It's unavoidable to think that New Zealand used 67 players in almost four years leading up to the tournament -- enough for three 22-man squads. Exposing more talent at Test level may have come at the expense of establishing a cohesive first-choice lineup.

About that , New Zealand Rugby Union Chairman Jock Hobbs told reporters in Cardiff: "Everything possible had been done, but we weren't good enough".

Australia coach John Connolly will also fly home today after his last match in charge. He was due to quit following the World Cup and will leave after his team's unexpected 12-10 loss to England in Marseille.

"The toughest part is that England did exactly what makes Australians so proud about our sporting teams," John Eales, who led the Wallabies to the 1999 world title, wrote in today's Australian Financial Review. "They had a go."

The All Blacks are also likely to enter the next World Cup in 2011 as the favorites since they are staging the event. Their only success came as hosts of the inaugural cup 20 years ago.

"Imagine the next four years leading up to hosting the Cup," Drake added. "The burden of expectation will only grow heavier."

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Exciting games will decide the pass to the quarter-finals

Friday night's Rugby World Cup game between England and Tonga opens a weekend of vital matches that will decide which squads will make it to the quarter-finals of the tournament.

Yes, if fans are excited by the prospect of these do-or-die matches, so are the players.

"Everyone in Tonga is waiting for this match," Tonga's number eight Finau Maka admitted. "It's the biggest game in Tongan rugby. We can't wait."

Indeed, three of the eight quarter-final spots have already been filled, with two-time champions Australia, title favourites New Zealand and South Africa guaranteed to finish atop their pools.

But holders England, hosts France, upstarts Tonga, Fiji, Italy and Argentina as well as perennial also-rans Scotland, Ireland and Wales are all fighting for survival in the final pool clashes of this World Cup.

In addition to the England-Tonga Pool A encounter in Paris, Wales face Fiji on Saturday in Nantes and Scotland take on the Italian team in St. Etienne on the same day in a decisive Pool C match. The winners of these matches go on to the knock-out stage; the losers go home.

The situation in Pool D is more complex. If France beat Georgia on Sunday in Marseille they will advance, while Ireland must defeat the Pumas from Argentina later Sunday in Paris by more than seven points and score at least four tries to oust the Pumas and reach the quarter-finals.

In addition, because they beat France in the tournament's opening encounter, if Argentina win on Sunday they not only send the Irish packing but also condemn the French to second place in the pool and a quarter-final match against New Zealand, with the likelihood of being knocked out of their own Cup at an embarrassingly early stage.

England come into Friday's match on the upswing after a disappointing start to the tournament. After being kept out of the first two matches with a sad injury, fly half Jonny Wilkinson returned to the lineup to lead England to a 44-22 victory over Samoa.

That triumph followed a demoralizing 36-0 defeat at the hands of South Africa.

If England lose, they will become the first holders not to advance beyond the pool stage and Tonga will make their first-ever appearance in the quarter-finals. The winners will face Australia on October 6 in Marseille.

It's good to mention that Wales look to be heavily favoured over Fiji, especially in light of their excellent showing against the Wallabies, losing by 32-20, while Fiji only squeaked past minnows Japan 35-31.

However, the Pacific islanders have recalled 11 first-choice players they rested from their 55-12 loss to Australia on Sunday, and they have less to lose than the Welsh, who will view defeat as a humiliation.

In Saturday's Pool C derby, Scotland need only to tie Italy to advance, and they have so far looked the better side of the two. In addition, they rested key players against New Zealand to better prepare for Italy.

As Scotland coach Frank Hadden said, "It was always going to boil down to this match. What both teams have done up until now counts for nothing."

As we know, Italy have made great strides under French coach Pierre Berbizier, and won their last meeting 37-17 at Murrayfield in the 2007 Six Nations tournament. If the Italians win, they will make their first appearance in the World Cup quarter-finals.

It would be an enormous upset if France did not beat Georgia on Sunday. It would also be a big setback for the hosts if they did not score four tries to notch the bonus point that could make a difference between first and second place in Pool D.

We must remember that the runner-up faces the Kiwis, the pool winner gets to play either Scotland or Italy, a much more inviting prospect.

The Ireland-Argentina game, which kicks off just minutes after France-Georgia ends, is certain to be the most hard-fought game of the weekend.

The two sides have met 14 times, with the Irish winning seven and the Pumas six, with one draw. Nine of those 14 games were decided by seven points or less.

Based on performance in this World Cup, Argentina look to be favoured. The Pumas come into the match with the best defensive line of the tournament, having conceded only 18 points in three matches, with no tries.

In addition, Irish substitute prop Rory Best was taken ill and hospitalized this week with what appears to be a heart ailment.

Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan said this did not help preparations for the match. "We have an issue we did not expect to have and a team-mate in hospital," he expressed. "We will have to get ready for the game. It will go ahead regardless."

South Africa to use their big names against the United States

Favorites South Africa have named close to their best side for their final Rugby World Cup group clash against the United States on Sunday.

Indeed, the popular Springboks, who have already secured their quarter-final place against either Wales or Fiji, will give winger Akona Ndungane his first start in the tournament, while lock Albert van den Berg will be playing in his 50th Test.

Schalk Burger returns from a two-game suspension and will play at No.8 while Danie Rossouw recovers from a knock in South Africa’s 30-25 win over Tonga last weekend.

Fullback Percy Montgomery, lining up for his 91st Test against the American Eagles, faces a fitness test on a calf injury at training tomorrow.

"Akona hasn’t had a game at the World Cup, and I think it’s only fair that everyone has an opportunity to play here and he gets his start," coach Jake White said.

"Albert (van den Berg) is playing in his 50th Test game and I think it’s good to give him a start and also over and above that Bakkies Botha has played three consecutive games and he’s played 80 minutes last weekend so we’re going to need him going forwards into the quarters.

"It’s more about giving the whole squad an opportunity to rest and play, it’s just not about being sentimental to Albert’s 50th Test, but it’s also based on Bakkies needing a bit of time on the bench."

White expressed that Montgomery didn’t train today with a tight calf muscle, while hooker Gary Botha had a cut arm and winger Ashwin Willemse and prop Gurthro Steenkamp have mouth abscesses.

"Danie (Rossouw) is not 100 percent ready after last week’s match and scrum-half Rico Januarie has a shoulder injury," White said.

"The good thing is that by this time next week, if all goes well with the injuries, then we should have a clean bill of health for the quarter-finals, semis and final and that’s what you want to go into, you want all these players available for selection."

White will be celebrating his 50th Test as the Springboks’ coach with his success rate standing at just over 63 percent.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cup rookies are gaining experience and supporters

Imagine that former Wallaby winger David Campese had his way. In that case, the likes of countries like Georgia, Namibia and Portugal wouldn't be at the Rugby World Cup.

In fact, before the 20-country tournament got under way in France, Campese championed calls for the number of teams to be cut to 16 to avoid blowout scores that do little for rugby beyond rewriting its record books.

Yet the underdogs have shamed their critics by scaring some of the fancied teams and proving they do deserve places at the game's biggest tournament.

"Everybody who's here has earned the right to be here," New Zealand flanker Jerry Collins admitted. "Who's to say they shouldn't be here? They should get credit for getting this far and we should get behind them. They're only going to get better if they come here."

While rookie Portugal, Namibia and Japan have been on the wrong end of thumpings - 13 All Blacks crossed for tries as New Zealand crushed Portugal 108-13, France also scored 13 in an 87-10 beating of Namibia and Australia routed Japan 91-3 in its opening game - rugby's developing world also has turned in some inspirational performances and drawn some of the biggest roars from crowds in France.

No team has impressed more than Georgia, playing in only its second World Cup and still searching for its first victory. Rugby is in its infancy in the former Soviet republic, which boasts just eight rugby fields.

As weknow, the eastern Europeans battled hard in the first half against Argentina before losing 33-3 and then came tantalizingly close to pulling off the greatest shock in World Cup history. It just failed to beat Six Nations powerhouse Ireland, losing 14-10 in Bordeaux on Saturday.

Playing against the most-capped Irish starting line of all time, the Georgians camped close to Ireland's try line for much of the second half and only frantic defence by Eddie O'Sullivan's men kept them out.

"We did not up our performance as we would have liked to have. Despite that, credit goes to the Georgians. They were really rough," Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll said after the game. "I've played in 77 Tests and this one was as hard as any of the top sides."

Actually, Georgia coach Malkhaz Cheishvili was left ruing what might have been.

"We tried to organize our defence and play as tightly as possible. The boys achieved this 80 per cent. There were still errors, but they did very well," he said.

The four point margin of defeat was Georgia's smallest ever at a World Cup and earned the team a bonus point. Giorgi Shkinin's second half try also meant that, as of Saturday night, host France was the only team at the tournament not to have scored a five-pointer.

Of course, the French put that right Sunday night by running in 13 tries in thrashing Namibia in Toulouse. But even in that encounter one of the biggest roars from the Partisan crowd came when outside centre Bratley Langenhoven grabbed an interception and sprinted the length of the field for a consolation try in the final minute.

It's important to notice that while it was reduced to 14 men early against France and was never in contention, Namibia earlier shocked the Irish by scoring two second half tries in a 32-17 loss. It was Namibia's 105-13 thrashing by South Africa in a warmup game that fuelled calls for second-tier nations to be excluded from the World Cup.

Tonga has a long and proud rugby history. But, as a nation of only 115,000 people with about 5,000 registered players, it consistently punches about its weight. At this World Cup it has strung together back-to-back victories for the first time, overcoming the United States and then beating Samoa after nine losses to its neighbour in a row - a result that set church bells ringing before dawn across the islands nation.

After New Zealand's 13-try romp against his side, Portugal coach Tomaz Morais rejected the argument often put forward by those who want a smaller World Cup that such lopsided defeats damage rugby development in smaller nations.

"It was an excellent day for our rugby and the world's rugby," he expressed. "Playing against the best teams, we can always learn. The whole press is talking about rugby in our nation and that will help it grow."

And all those tiny nations beating expectations but not opponents can take heart from one stat: The only team shutout so far in France is defending champion England, beaten 36-0 by South Africa on Friday.

England's Jamie Noon out of the Cup

Unfortunately for the british team, their outside center Jamie Noon was ruled out of the Rugby World Cup on Sunday with knee ligament damage.

According to official sources, the player was carried off as England lost 36-0 to South Africa at the Stade de France on Friday, the team's largest-ever World Cup defeat. A scan confirmed that he has a grade 2 medial strain to his left knee, an injury that typically has a six-week recovery period but doesn't require surgery.

"He is really disappointed not to be able to take any further part in this tournament," England team doctor Simon Kemp said of Noon.

In fact, no decision has yet been taken whether to call for a replacement.

Dan Hipkiss, who had been quarantined earlier this week with a mild case of tonsillitis, is fit again and could replace Noon for Saturday's must-win Group A game with Samoa at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes.

However, there was better news for England on injured flyhalves Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, plus Jason Robinson.

Robinson, who will retire after the World Cup, strained his left hamstring in the match versus South Africa, but is not thought to have played his last game after recovering well in the 36 hours following the match.

Although unlikely to be named for the Samoa match when England coach Brian Ashton announces his team Monday, Robinson may come back Tonga at the Parc des Princes in Paris on Sept. 28.

Kemp said that Wilkinson, who has an ankle injury, and Barkley, who strained his left hip, were recovering at the expected rate.

"Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley continue to make very good progress," he stated. "We've always anticipated that they'll be available for selection this weekend and nothing has changed for us to change our minds."

ACtually, Wilkinson is expected to replace Mike Catt at No. 10 against Samoa, with Ashton to decide between Catt, Barkley and Andy Farrell to take the position of inside center. Farrell played at No. 12 against South Africa.

England, which struggled to beat United States 28-10 last week, could become the first reigning world champions to fail to reach the quarterfinals if it doesn't defeat Samoa and Tonga.

In the end, England captain Phil Vickery will sit out the final match of his two-game suspension against Samoa.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Latest Results of the Rugby World Cup

England's defence of the Rugby World Cup 2007 got off to a disappointing start today as they scraped past minnows USA 28-10 at the Stade Felix Bollaert, Lens.

Indeed, in a day when their rivals New Zealand eased past Italy 76-14 and Australia hammered Japan 91-3, England were expected to put a marker down for their chances of defending the Webb Ellis trophy.

However, in a lacklustre display, England only managed to score three tries against a USA team which had lost to a Munster second XV in a World Cup warm-up match.

The British team failed to create a great deal in the absence of Jonny Wilkinson, and it took them 35 minutes to score the first try as Jason Robinson latched on to a Mike Catt cross-field kick to go over.

Olly Barkley scored a second try five minutes later after a good break by wing Josh Lewsey to give a respectable half-time score of 21-3.

Things did not get much better for the world champions in the second half and all they managed to muster up was a try from Tom Rees. The Wasps man was one of the few England players to impress and he took a quick tap penalty to drive over the line for a deserved try.

Embarrassingly for England, USA managed to score a try late on as Tongan born forward Matekitonga Moeakiola brushed aside Barkley Lewis Moody to score a try and cap-off a spirited performance by his team.

With the massive clash against South Africa only five days away, England have a lot of work to do and will be praying that star player Wilkinson recovers from injury.

Argentina defeated France in a surprising opening match

Argentina reached a glorious result in the most important Rugby Tournament. Not since the French humbled the All Blacks in a 1999 semi-final have the global titles seen a more unlikely result, and never has a boilover spread such widespread gloom through a nation staging the event.

Indeed, the shockwaves from the Pumas' 17-12 triumph in Paris reverberated well beyond the boundaries of their Pool D grouping, with a chance the best four sides in the world - New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa - could be clumped in the same side of the draw from the quarter-final stages.

But Wallabies coach John Connolly viewed the horror scenario as a distinct possibility.

However, last night he quickly dismissed any suggestion the Australians might try to manufacture an easier path to the final by throwing their game against Wales at Millennium Stadium on Saturday night.

"We just wouldn't do it, no way at all," he admitted. "That's not the mentality of sport."

The Argentina got the victory, however, has rocked several heavyweight title contenders.

If the Pumas can repeat the effort and defeat Ireland on September 30 - after seeing off minnows Namibia and Georgia - they will claim the first place in their pool.

Unfortunately for France, that would leave them, if they also defeat the Irish, in second place and facing a certain quarter-final showdown with the All Blacks.

The Wallabies, if they top Pool B, will face either England or South Africa in the quarters and the All Blacks or their conquerors in a semi-final.

England, Wales, Scotland and Argentina would be most likely to come through the other half, with the Pumas the highest ranked of the quartet at No.6 on the International Rugby Board rankings.

Ireland, ranked fifth, loom as the wildcard, with its group results against France and Argentina to determine the final Pool D standings.

It's interesting to notice that Argentina stayed within its limits on opening night to topple a French side tipped pre-tournament to emerge as the major title threat to odds-on favourite New Zealand.

The Pumas, with a physical and hard-working pack, combined that muscle with a rush defence to knock the home side out of rhythm as 79,312 Stade de France faithful watched in ever deepening disappointment.

We can conclude that for a full-strength France, staring at an early exit if defeated by Ireland, the first-up failure was devastating.

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Brilliant Opening Ceremony for the most important Rugby Tournament

The Cup fever has begun, and Paris told the world last night that this World Cup will be the most exciting one. With a tremendous show of colour and movements, the Opening Ceremony was displayed before the opening match between the hosts France and Argentina.

Indeed, on a balmy early autumn evening in Paris, the Stade de France was filled with a capacity crowd to see a vividly colourful and frequently bizarre opening ceremony featuring percussionists, dancers, and huge mechanical devices on wheels.

Opening with a field full of drummers beating out powerful rhythms on bright red oil drums, the 80,000 crowd, as well as hundreds of millions watching on TV were treated to a fly past by military jets trailing tricolour smoke of red, white and blue in honor of the hosts.

And the percussionists were then joined on the playing surface by a troupe of dancers dressed in riotously colourful costumes designed to represent the players of the competing nations.

Then on to the field, came actual representatives of the countries involved in the Cup, with scrum-half legend and Western Mail columnist Gareth Edwards appearing on behalf of Wales, alongside dancers, dressed in green colour, marked by large crosses, and with bike helmets apparently perched atop their heads.

I'ts important to notice that with constant camera flashes creating a strobe effect around the stadium, the ceremony reached its climax as the dancers fanned out across the pitch, while among them rolled four huge wheeled machines.

And they gathered in the centre of the pitch, hoisting four dancers into the air to unveil a huge model of the Webb Ellis Cup.

But viewers in Wales were granted just a glimpse of the ceremony, with broadcasters preferring the customary interviews with ex-players and pundits. At less than half an hour in length, it was just a blink of an eye for those used to marathon Olympic curtain-raisers, and ended in plenty of time for what we have all been waiting for – six weeks of the best rugby.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

England coach named his team for World Cup opener

According to official sources, England boss Brian Ashton named his squad for the defending champion's Rugby World Cup opener against the United States in Lens on Saturday.

Ashton was forced into a late change after Jonny Wilkinson's new injury jinx struck with the flyhalf suffering a twisted ankle in training here Tuesday.

"Indeed, Jonny Wilkinson twisted his ankle in training this morning and is not available for selection," Ashton expressed.

"I think he is going for a scan this afternoon to determine the nature and the extent of the injury and until tomorrow there will be no further medical update."

Bath's Olly Barkley will inherit the number 10 shirt, with Saracens' Andy Farrell lining up on the bench. And despite Wilkinson's absence Ashton was in bullish mood ahead of the game at Lens' Felix-Bollaert ground.

"We've picked a XV that we think will do a job against the USA," he stated.

In all there were six modifications from the side that lined up to face France in the second of England's World Cup warm-ups against the hosts in Marseille last month.

Ashton reintroduces Lawrence Dallaglio in place of Nick Easter to the all-Wasps back row alongside Joe Worsley and Tom Rees, while Noon and Mike Catt combine at centre with Andrew Sheridan taking over on the front row from Perry Freshwater.

Leicester's Ben Kay meanwhile is favoured over Bath captain Steve Borthwick to start alongside Simon Shaw in the second row.

It's good to remember that Josh Lewsey will be earning his 50th cap.

England (15-1)

Mark Cueto (Sale); Josh Lewsey (Wasps), Jamie Noon (Newcastle), Mike Catt (London Irish), Jason Robinson (unattached); Olly Barkley (Bath), Shaun Perry (Bristol); Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps), Tom Rees (Wasps), Joe Worsley (Wasps); Simon Shaw (Wasps), Ben Kay (Leicester); Phil Vickery (Wasps, capt), Mark Regan (Bristol), Andrew Sheridan (Sale)

Replacements: George Chuter (Leicester), Matt Stevens (Bath), Martin Corry (Leicester), Lewis Moody (Leicester), Peter Richards (London Irish), Andy Farrell (Saracens), Mathew Tait (Newcastle)

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Fans welcome super-favorite All Blacks

The All Blacks know that they are the most important favorites to win the trophy, and yesterday afternoon the supporters proved it at the Old Port of Marseille.

Indeed, after a weekend break on the island of Corsica, the New Zealand squad received the rugby equivalent of a royal welcome in the shape of not only the Mayor of Marseille, Jean-Claude Gaudin, but also Bernard Lapasset, the president of the French Union and organising committee.

A really big crowd had watched the All Blacks train in Ajacio, Corsica, on Saturday and some 2,000 or so crowded onto the quayside outside the city hall yesterday.

Each player was given a tournament cap by the Marseille dignitaries and then the squad posed for promotional photographs alongside a giant postcard of the port.

Even the normally unmoved Graham Henry, the head coach, was surprised at the reception. "The Marseille people have come out and welcomed us, overwhelming really. The boys know they are at the World Cup now," he said.

"Perhaps, after three reasonably quiet days on Corsica, we needed to be reminded of what it is all about. The people have been outstanding in their welcome. We had a bit of run around on Corsica and the stadium was packed to see a football game."

Lapasset explained that the welcome was due partly to the "fantastic relationship" between New Zealand and France that stretched back over 100 years. The first team to play in Marseille had been the All Blacks and that was one sentimental reason why they have made the city their base.

As we know, Henry has promised that New Zealand will give 150 per cent in an effort to win the Rugby World Cup for the first time since they defeated France 29-9 in Auckland in the inaugural tournament in 1987. "We've always said that, and that remains our promise," he added.

His only injury worry remains the lock, Keith Robinson, who has been ruled out of the first game next Saturday, with Italy, because of his persistent calf injury.

And Brian Lochore, the former New Zealand captain and now one of the All Blacks selectors, believes the squad have become used to handling the pressure of being the world's most famous rugby team. "Whether we are favourites or not, it should not affect the way we play," he said.

It is estimated that Marseille will receive some 500,000 people over the next seven weeks of a tournament which culminates in two quarter-finals being played at the Velodrome. If results go to prediction, then those matches will feature both England and Wales.

If the All Blacks sail, as expected, through their Pool C games (Italy, Scotland, Romania and Portugal), then they will head for a quarter-final in Cardiff against the runners-up from Pool D, where France, Ireland and Argentina are grouped.