McCaw, Carter to face France
RICHIE McCaw and Dan Carter trained freely in rugby's broken heartland yesterday, raising expectations that Canterbury rugby's two most famous sons will be available to play France.
All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith relayed the positive news hours before Zac Guildford was forced to make an embarrassing mea culpa over his drinking.
While Guildford looks likely to be spending the bulk of the next month in his civilian clothes watching from the stands, the All Blacks injured quintet - Carter, McCaw, Mils Muliaina, Israel Dagg and Kieran Read - all appear to be heading in the right direction after training at Christchurch's Linwood Rugby Club.
"They've all had a run around today. Richie had quite a big session ... Mils got through a lot more sharply than he has done in the last few weeks, so I'd say they're on track to be available," Smith said.
As for Carter, whose importance has been thrown into sharp relief by replacement Colin Slade's struggles, Smith said his back was still not 100 per cent, but not far off.
"He's freed up a wee bit. It's just a niggle, stiff, a bit uncomfortable, but the positive thing today is that he goal-kicked.
That's a really good sign because that's pretty difficult."
The selectors remain hopeful that influential No8 Read will appear against Canada in Wellington on October 2, New Zealand's final pool match. Out of the moonboot after injuring ankle ligaments early in the Tri-Nations decider last month, Read has resumed running this week.
The All Blacks assistant coach said dealing with injuries was just the reality of tournament play.
"We've had a long-term plan on how we're going to do things, but it doesn't always play out the way you want," he said.
The pool match against France will almost certainly decide who finishes first or second in Pool B.
The All Blacks have watched the games between two tier-one nations and will realise they have yet to face anywhere near the physicality shown in the Ireland-Australia clash during their easy wins against Tonga and Japan.
"This will be a massive game because the French will be up for it and we've got to make sure we are.
"[Ireland] issued a blueprint for rugby in showing that nothing changes. If you can win up front and you win the gain-line, you win the collisions, you're probably going to win the game."
France have become New Zealand's World Cup nemesis and the All Black camp are refusing to hide behind the "history counts for nothing" cliche.
The French, despite their unconvincing start to this campaign, have an uncanny ability to strike blind, which is why the All Blacks are reviewing previous World Cup defeats.
No one is reading too much into France's patchy performances so far. In 2007 the hosts lost their opening game to Argentina and were supposedly far from united when they went to Cardiff.
The All Blacks had hammered Italy, Portugal, Scotland and Romania and were thought to be in top gear. Yet, as it transpired, the All Blacks had simply played weak teams and were unprepared for the intensity.
A slightly worrying parallel can be drawn to how things are four years on. The French have been erratic, while the All Blacks have amassed 124 points against two sides who have barely tested them.
To believe the French are not a threat is madness, which is why the All Black forwards set a series of live scrums yesterday. The set-piece is where all the action is likely to be focused in the early exchanges and Ben Franks says they will be facing a strong scrum.
"We have to step things up another level," said Franks. "We have to make sure we match their passion for the scrum."
The All Blacks know the physical stuff will spill out of the scrum and into the collisions and the intensity of the contest can't be allowed to catch them by surprise. That's probably been the key learning they have taken from their 2007 defeat - that World Cup encounters dance to a tune of their own; that the French in particular are capable of lifting their energy and dynamism and happy to play off emotion for 80 minutes.
"World Cups are different to normal tests," said Smith. "That level of intensity goes up and it's country versus country rather than team versus team. As a group we decided pre-tournament to look at where we failed in the past; that we should go toward it and understand it rather than run away from it."