Rugby World Cup France 2007

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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.