AUCKLAND, New Zealand, September 23 – The All Blacks on Friday completed preparations for the World Cup showdown with France as England coach Martin Johnson battled to keep the focus on the game with Romania after the arrival of royal Zara Phillips.
Graham Henry’s men went through their paces on a lush-looking but empty Eden Park Stadium where 60,000 fans were expected on Saturday to, they hope, witness revenge being taken for the defeat in the last eight four years ago.
“Henry’s best side for this test,” headlined the New Zealand Herald newspaper before adding “Drum roll please. Here it is folks, the best All Black side … for this test.”
Opening wins against Tonga and Japan were taken for granted by a New Zealand public desperate to see their All Blacks end 24 years of heartbreak by winning the World Cup for a second time.
Old nemesis France though is quite a different matter and two weeks into the tournament, the buzz around Auckland is palpable.
The French camp though are keen to play down the importance of the match although they insist they do want to win it and have selected the best team they can muster to get the job done.
Skipper Thierry Dusautoir was among those trying to show that they have adopted a relaxed approach to the occasion.
“There is no pressure on us for this match,” the flanker insisted.
“We are going to play against a legendary team in a legendary stadium. What can happen to us? What can go wrong for us?
“We need just to enjoy the moment, try as much as we can to get under their skin and to win.”
Down in Dunedin on the South Island, England coach Martin Johnson was preparing his side for what was expected to be a comfortable win over Romania, but he was still battling to douse the flames of the Mike Tindall bar row.
Johnson had been categoric at his daily press conference on Thursday that the matter was done and dusted.
He angrily told reporters to stop questioning Tindall over exactly what went on that night when he and other England players celebrated their opening win over Argentina in a Queenstown bar.
But the arrival in Dunedin of Tindall’s wife Zara Phillips, the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth, reignited interest in the story with the New Zealand Herald carrying a blurry photograph of the two walking out of Dunedin aiport.
Johnson has always insisted he is happy to have players’ wives and girlfriends with the squad, and some have already joined the England party at their Dunedin hotel.
“It’s not unusual. Players’ wives are often around before games so it’s not any big deal for this squad,” Johnson told British-based rugby reporters after Thursday’s press conference.
“They are used to players’ wives coming in and she (Phillips) is one of the players’ wives.
The only action of the day on the field was Australia’s game against the United States in Wellington with the Wallabies looking to get their run at a third world title back on tracks after the stunning loss to Ireland.
On team announcements, Argentinian talisman Felipe Contepomi was named in the Pumas’ lineup for Sunday’s clash with Scotland in Wellington despite still being in some pain from bruised ribs.
Fiji brought back veteran fly-half Nicky Little for his 70th cap against Samoa in what will be a last-gasp chance for both teams to stay alive in the World Cup, while the Samoans brought back Tusi Pisi to oppose him at No.10.