Johnson fears repeat of All Blacks' French farce

A New Zealand defeat to Marc Lièvremont's side today will put the hosts on collision course with England in the later stages
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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 now ancient news. It did not happen last year, or even in the last decade, but in 1994, and 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: more forbidding than Johannesburg, more difficult to breach than Twickenham in the great days of Clive Woodward's red-rose regime.

Another thing: unlike Marc Lièvremont, the French coach, the New Zealand selectors 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. Richie McCaw will be playing too, not that there was a fat lot of debate about the great flanker's place in the starting line-up.

"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 New Zealander to reach the milestone. "He is an inspiration for the country. Not only for his fellow players, but for all New Zealanders." Praise indeed, from a man not given to dispensing glittering prizes of the verbal kind to any Tom, Dick or Harry.

McCaw means pretty much everything to New Zealand rugby, and those who have a piece of him cling on to it for dear life. 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 rugby chronicler yesterday in an appraisal of McCaw's career. "After leaving school he headed up the road to Lincoln University to study for a degree in agricultural science... and was lost to Otago. Though no one man can be blamed, is it too much of a coincidence that Otago started tailing off around the time he went?"

Over the last few days, those current All Blacks who were on the field 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 with more attention to detail than New Zealand. If France, denied the services of their outstanding tight-head prop Nicolas Mas through injury and unsure of their best half-back combination, manage another victory today, it will the "result from the end of the earth".

Meanwhile, the England camp will keep their stricken No 8 Nick Easter under close observation over the next couple of days before making a final call on his future in this tournament. Easter has been suffering from back problems for a week now, and with Thomas Waldrom, the New Zealand-born Leicester forward already in Dunedin as cover, the Harlequin needs to show signs of recovery sooner rather than later.

"The way things are looking at the moment, we think he'll be fit to train next week," said Johnson. "We know what the problem is, but Nick has never had this type of injury before and isn't quite sure where he stands in terms of getting himself back up to speed. It's one of those situations where the medics themselves don't know exactly when it will clear up. If they could say with certainty what was happening with every injury, it would make my life a whole lot easier. But they can't."

Backs – in the anatomical sense as well as the rugby one – are becoming something of an issue for the former champions. Mark Cueto, the Sale wing who played in the 2007 World Cup final, missed the first two matches with spasms, and there was more hassle yesterday when another threequarter, Matt Banahan, failed to train after reporting Easter-like discomfort.