Mitchell orders All Blacks to salvage wounded pride

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The Independent Online

How's this for a clash of sporting cultures? The price of semi-final defeat for the All Blacks is another evening at the coalface - 14 of those who started last weekend's match against Australia will start tomorrow's third place play-off with France at the Telstra Stadium, a fixture they would much prefer to avoid like the plague. And the price of failure for the Tricolores? A late-night session with a dodgy movie or two, and a Thursday off.

New Zealand, lambasted by their ever-expectant public for failing to win a second World Cup at the fourth time of asking, will field their strongest side in the game no one wants to happen. All but one of the big names will be on view: Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko, Carlos Spencer, Richie McCaw have all been press-ganged into service. The exception is Justin Marshall, the Canterbury scrum-half, who failed to go the distance against the Wallabies and is still suffering from rib and chest injuries. Steve Devine, of Auckland, replaces him.

"This is a really important match for us to win, as there is a factor of accountability within the group," John Mitchell, the coach, explained. "There is something to salvage from this tournament, and it is important to finish on a high. We've put the defeat [against Australia] behind us. We have to - this is another Test match, a Test match against France and we have to deal with that. Our focus is on that now, but naturally the surroundings are a bit more difficult than usual and that's the challenge that faces us."

The French have named a shadow team featuring only two of the players who faced England on Sunday - Tony Marsh, the Montferrand centre, and Sylvain Marconnet, the Stade Français prop, who switches to loose head from the tight-head position. Yannick Bru, of Toulouse, will lead the side from hooker, taking over the reins from Fabien Galthié, who retired after the trauma of the weekend. Dimitri Yachvili, of Biarritz, takes over the scrum-half position.

Jo Maso, the manager, insisted his side had every intention of taking a serious approach to the play-off, which is probably the least popular fixture in the world game. He explained that several of the first-choice players were injured, and that others were simply exhausted after their efforts over the last six weeks. Tiredness may well be a factor for a different reason. After the failure against England, the squad cheered themselves by viewing a film of questionable taste described by Raphaël Ibañez, the former captain, as "an internal production". The mind boggles.

It is difficult to imagine Jonny Wilkinson, the puritanical prince of English rugby, being caught up in such an unseemly scrum, which may go some of the way towards explaining why his peers have voted him international player of the year. The decision was announced here yesterday by officials of the International Rugby Players' Association. Wilkinson, who retains the title first bestowed on him in 2002, beat four All Blacks - Spencer, Howlett, Rokocoko and McCaw - in a poll conducted among members of the seven leading Test squads.

Rokocoko, the 20-year-old wing from Fiji who made his debut for the All Blacks against England in Wellington a little over five months ago, claimed the newcomer's award, beating the Northampton hooker Steve Thompson, the Wallaby flanker Phil Waugh and the French No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy to the prize. Peculiarly, New Zealand beat England to the team award, despite their rivals' Six Nations' Grand Slam, hat-trick of victories over the southern hemisphere super powers at Twickenham last autumn and unbeaten tour of Australasia during the summer.

Wilkinson, the talk of this sports-mad country following his 24-point contribution against France at the weekend, has also been nominated for the International Rugby Board's player of the year award, which will be decided here on Sunday. McCaw, rated the best open-side flanker in the game, is also on the shortlist.

THIRD/FOURTH PLAY-OFF TEAMS (tomorrow, Sydney, 9.0am GMT): FRANCE: C Poitrenaud; P Elhorga, T Marsh, D Traille, D Bory; G Merceron, D Yachvili; S Marconnet, Y Bru (capt), J B Poux, D Auradou, T Privat, P Tabacco, S Chabal, C Labit. Replacements: R Ibañez, J-J Crenca, F Pelous, O Magne, F Michalak, B Liebenberg, N Brusque.

NEW ZEALAND: M Muliaina; D Howlett, L MacDonald, A Mauger, J Rokocoko; C Spencer, S Devine; D Hewett, K Mealamu, G Somerville, C Jack, A Williams, R Thorne (capt), R McCaw, J Collins. Replacements: M Hammett, C Hoeft, B Thorn, M Holah, B Kelleher, D Carter, C Ralph.

Referee: C White (England).