AUCKLAND, New Zealand, September 22 – Reigning champions South Africa put one foot in the quarter-finals with their biggest ever World Cup win Thursday as New Zealand wheeled out the big guns for their clash with France.
Elsewhere England struggled to quell the tabloid storm surrounding centre Mike Tindall and World Cup chief Martin Snedden spoke out after reports that Australian fans were abused by New Zealanders.
Ruthless South Africa pulverised neighbours and World Cup whipping boys Namibia 87-0 — their highest points total and widest victory margin in the competition — to add to their earlier victories against Wales and Fiji.
The Springboks, seeking to become the first team to successfully defend the Webb Ellis Cup, top Pool D on 14 points with just one game left against Samoa and on course for a likely quarter-final with Australia.
New Zealand recalled captain Richie McCaw after injury for Saturday’s clash with France, meaning the flanker will become the first All Blacks player to reach 100 Test caps.
The hosts also named fit-again fly-half Dan Carter and ditched 98-cap veteran fullback Mils Muliaina in favour of the up-and-coming Israel Dagg, in a move which followed much soul-searching by coach Graham Henry.
“It was not easy, and it was a long discussion and obviously there’s a lot of emotion involved in these sort of selections,” said Henry, who also dismissed claims France had named a weak team to avoid topping Pool A.
“You people wonder about the All Blacks selection apparently, I’ve been told occasionally, and now the boot’s on the other foot,” Henry told a media conference. “I just don’t take any notice of it, quite frankly.”
As Tindall’s newly wed wife, royal heir Zara Phillips, made a surprise arrival in New Zealand, coach Martin Johnson snapped at a reporter who tried to question the England centre about footage showing him with a woman in a bar.
“We’ve put it to bed, it’s not an issue,” Johnson told the journalist.
“I said to you last week what happened, the guys went out and had a drink.”
“We’ve played a game since then and we are looking forward to another game this weekend so if you’ve got any questions about that we’d love to hear them and answer them for you,” Johnson added.
World Cup chief Martin Snedden described reports that Australian fans were spat on and abused by New Zealanders as “out of character”. The visiting fans were targeted during Australia’s defeat to Ireland last weekend.
“The overwhelming response here has been one of welcoming and supporting the visiting teams and their fans,” Snedden told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“If some visiting Wallaby fans have not been welcomed this way, we would be very disappointed as this would definitely be out of character with the way New Zealanders have looked after our visitors over the past two weeks.”
An online poll conducted by the Sydney newspaper found 61 percent of 10,500 respondents felt threatened attending a game with New Zealand rugby supporters, indicating traditional banter had taken on a spiteful edge.
Tonga poured fuel on the fiery debate over scheduling as they maintained a longer break between games was a key factor in Wednesday’s 31-18 win over Japan.
Coach Isitolo Maka said Tonga’s full week of preparations “really helped” achieve the 31-18 victory, which snapped a five-year losing streak against the Brave Blossoms.
The comments come after Samoan centre Eliota Sapolu Fuimaono was reprimanded for calling the schedule, which gives big teams more time off, “unfair treatment, like slavery, like the holocaust, like apartheid”.
And Japan coach John Kirwan warned the 2019 hosts were in danger of going a fifth consecutive World Cup without a win if they do not rapidly improve against their final Pool A opponents, Canada.
“Too many errors and not protecting the ball at ruck cost us dearly. We need to fix that otherwise the same thing will happen against Canada,” Kirwan warned.