AUCKLAND, New Zealand, September 3 – The All Blacks on Saturday said they are ready to challenge for the World Cup as they shrugged off a barrage of grim news just six days before they open the tournament on home soil against Tonga.
The side is down to just three fit loose forwards and, as well as facing accusations of being serial cheats, has had to contend with news France is contemplating resting several frontline players for their crucial Pool A clash.
A weakened French side could leave the All Blacks going into the sudden-death rounds underdone, repeating the scenario that led to their demise in the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Cup.
The New Zealanders are under enormous public pressure to win the World Cup for the first time in 24 years to appease their supporters in a land where rugby success is seen as a symbol of what the country stands for.
Adding to a tough countdown for the tournament favourites have been losses to the second and third ranked sides, Australia and South Africa, in recent weeks.
However, coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw on Saturday said they are well prepared for rugby’s toughest challenge.
Henry was aware of talk the All Blacks could face a weakened French side, similar to the tactic Scotland used against the New Zealanders in 2007, but said he had learned from the past about the intricacies of sudden-death rugby.
“At the last World Cup we had a soft qualifying round. We played Scotland B so I think in our preparation we have to take that into consideration. We might have to work a bit harder during the week,” he said.
McCaw added: “We’ve got to set a standard we’re happy with (against Tonga) and then improve it. You can’t just come out and turn it on when you think you have to because it will be too late by then.”
McCaw, Jerome Keino and Victor Vito are the only fit loose forwards in the squad after Adam Thomson and Kieran Read were both injured in the Tri-Nations Test against Australia a week ago.
Thomson is expected to have recovered from his elbow injury before the All Blacks second match against Japan on September 16 but the outlook for Read’s ankle injury was less clear.
“We’re praying,” Henry said. “We think he will play before the end of the round robin. That’s a pretty aggressive rehab but knowing Kieran he’ll give it his best shot. He’ll play in this World Cup but how soon is the question.”
Locks Sam Whitelock and Anthony Boric, who both have experience in the number six jersey will act as back up loose forwards if required while Thomson and Read are out of action.
Several thousand fans turned out in the rain on Saturday to greet the team at their civic reception, cheering them as heroes in the making despite the revival of claims that they are the world’s most successful team because they cheat.
Henry rubbished claims the All Blacks operate outside the rules.
“We ignore it and move on with what we can control,” he said.
Meanwhile, two-time World Cup finalists France look set to be without three key backs for their World Cup opener against Japan in North Harbour next Saturday according to French assistant coach Emile Ntamack.
Ntamack, who stands aside after the World Cup along with head coach Marc Lievremont and scrum handler Didier Retiere, said that Alexis Palisson, veteran Damien Traille – who is entering his third World Cup – and injury-prone centre Maxime Mermoz were all likely to miss the Group A match.
Palisson has torn his psoas, Traille suffered a knock to a knee in last month’s win in Bordeaux over Ireland but has returned to training, while Mermoz had all but been ruled out by Lievremont as he is still recovering from the twisted left knee he suffered in the same Ireland match.
“We know very well that foer the first match it is going to be very difficult (for Palisson),” said Ntamack.
“Maxime Mermoz and Damien Traille are in the process of returning, and they are getting progressively better.
“Will they be ready? That would be to say they will be 100percent Sunday or Monday and that will not be the case.
“That will make their chances of playing difficult, even if the news is better on their side.”
Ntamack, who played with Lievremont in the 1999 World Cup final defeat by Australia, admitted that they were battling to have enough backs for the Japan match.
“It gives us just about the adequate number for the backline but we are inclined to be extremely prudent in terms of the preparation,” said the 41-year-old, who scored 26 tries in 46 tests.
Lievremont – who will be replaced by Philippe Saint-Andre after the World Cup – will announce his starting line-up on Tuesday.
The French will also face Tonga, Canada and the likely tabletopping decider with hosts the All Blacks on September 24.
McCaw described the accusations as “old stuff that keeps coming up and a bit of imagination (by the accusers) wouldn’t go astray.”
As a final touch to their preparations, the All Blacks have drafted New Zealand’s only successful World Cup coach, Sir Brian Lochore who guided the 1987 team, into their group in a mentoring role.
The All Blacks play Tonga, Japan, France and then Canada in Pool A.