Johnson awaits a result from the end of the earth

 

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson says he has not given a second's thought to the outcome of the most eagerly-awaited pool match of the tournament to date: today's meeting between New Zealand and France at Eden Park in Auckland, where blue moons are witnessed far more frequently than All Black defeats. "World Cups are simple," the England manager remarked yesterday. "You play, you think about how to get better, you play again. It's about winning the next game. There's no point thinking about anything else." And there endeth the lesson.

All the same, the outcome of this contest will give shape to the rest of the tournament, and if England make it into the sudden-death stage, as they most certainly should, having eked out a crucial victory over Argentina, they will be as profoundly affected as everyone else. Should the French win – and they were the last side to manage the feat in New Zealand's largest city – the hosts will land with an almighty splat in what currently appears to be the northern hemisphere half of the knock-out draw. And that is enough to scare the living daylights out of everyone, Johnson included.

That last Tricolore triumph at Eden Park is ancient news: in 1994 Les Bleus needed the "try from the end of the earth", famously set in train by Philippe Saint-André and completed by Jean-Luc Sadourny, to make it a reality. Since then, Auckland has been an impenetrable sporting fastness.

Another thing: unlike Marc Lièvremont, the French coach, the Kiwis have picked the side virtually everyone else in this rugby-obsessed country would have picked, given the chance: the spellbinding Israel Dagg rather than the long-serving Mils Muliaina at full-back; Piri Weepu rather than Jimmy Cowan or Andy Ellis at scrum-half; Keven Mealamu ahead of Andrew Hore at hooker. Oh yes, and the great flanker Richie McCaw (above) will be back from injury.

"He is a special player and a special man," said Graham Henry, the head coach, of the forward who will win his 100th cap today – the first All Black to do so. "He is an inspiration for the country. Not only for his fellow players, but for all New Zealanders." Praise indeed.

Born in Oamaru in North Otago almost 31 years ago, the captain has played all his important rugby in the neighbouring "red and black" province of Canterbury – a fact that still rankles with the folk down south. "He was one of ours and then went north to the dreaded enemy," wrote one Dunedin-based chronicler yesterday. "Is it too much of a coincidence that Otago started tailing off around the time he went?"

Of late those current All Blacks who played in Cardiff when France knocked them out of the 2007 World Cup have cast an eye over the footage of that nightmarish game for the first time. "You have to go back and look at those occasions when you've ended up on the wrong side of the ledger, occasions that cause a lot of pain," said Henry. "You don't want to go through that pain again, so you need to prepare." No team has prepared more meticulously than them. If France, with their superb tight-head prop Nicolas Mas out injured and unsure of their best half-back combination, manage a victory today, it will the "result from the end of the earth".

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