All Blacks fear Umaga will lose his battle for fitness

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The Independent Online

New Zealand had two training sessions yesterday at Collingwood, an Australian Rules ground, and one of the men putting in the hard yards was their coach, John Mitchell. The former Waikato and Sale No 8 was moving a lot better than several of his key players.

Mitchell, who was the assistant to the England coach, Clive Woodward, in the last World Cup, has mounting injury problems, the most serious being the wounded knee of the centre and vice-captain, Tana Umaga, a casualty in the 70-7 win over Italy.

The fear is that Umaga's World Cup is over but the All Blacks are hoping against hope that is not the case. "We're waiting for the swelling to go down so we can assess what the damage is,'' Mitchell said. "We value him highly and he has an enormous presence on the field.''

Not for the immediate future. New Zealand have flown in the lock Norm Maxwell but because nobody, as yet, has gone home he cannot stay at the team hotel and has to train on his own. He is cover for Ali Williams, who has a foot injury and is also by no means certain of going the distance. A decision on Umaga is expected today.

The All Blacks have retained only six of the players who started against Italy for the match with Canada at the Telstra Dome here on Friday. Carlos Spencer takes over as the vice-captain but relinquishes the goal-kicking duties to the centre Daniel Carter.

Leon Macdonald starts his first Test of the season at full-back, allowing Malili Muliaina to move to the wing. Joe Rokocoko is another who is receiving treatment. He has a hamstring injury and is unlikely to be seen again until the knock-out stages. To make matters worse, Aaron Mauger - he and Umaga were the first-choice centres - is also in the queue for the physio. "He's taken a knock to his knee but we don't think it is a bad one,'' Mitchell said.

Mitchell worked with England and Woodward four years ago before returning to New Zealand. The two talked in Wellington a few months ago after England had beaten the All Blacks. "I've worked with a lot of those guys and I found it a bit strange,'' Mitchell said. "As a group of players England have really come on. People don't understand that Clive Woodward was a visionary.

"Extravagant was not an in- word. I respect Woody and I learned a lot in England. I wouldn't be doing the job I am doing now but for the experience I gained over there.''

Mitchell, however, is not trained as a doctor, and it is the New Zealand medical staff who are working overtime. The fresh three-quarter line includes not only Muliaina but Ma'a Nonu and the wing Caleb Ralph. Ralph will probably fill his boots against Canada and he had the air of a man who knows it. Asked if he had watched the Wales-Canada match, he replied: "Nah.''