Mortlock's return brings relief for Australia

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The Independent Online

Australia's injury problems are starting to improve with their captain Stirling Mortlock rejoining training and Stephen Larkham walking again after his second knee operation. Both have been ruled out of Australia's final Pool B match against Canada today but are hoping to play in the knockout stages.

Mortlock has not played since partially dislocating his shoulder against Wales in Cardiff on 15 September but was put through his paces at a special training session in Bordeaux yesterday, hitting the tackle bags to test the injury.

The Wallaby coach, John Connolly, said Mortlock came through the workout with flying colours and was on track to play in next week's quarter-final against either England or Tonga.

"He's come through very well," Connolly said. "He took some hits on his shoulder this morning, which was the intention, and he's come through very well."

Larkham has already been ruled out of the quarter-final and is facing a race against time to play if Australia make the semi-finals after undergoing two knee operations in eight days.

However, the injury has started showing some encouraging signs of improvement since he was released from a Montpellier hospital on Thursday.

"Stephen Larkham is up and walking around at the moment, so that's good news," Connolly said. "There's a possibility of a semi-final we hope. Again, if the wound settles well, we'll know more every day."

Australia have already lost utility back Mark Gerrard for the tournament to injury and Scott Staniforth was forced to pull out of the match against Canada because of a shoulder problem. Connolly has picked a mostly second-string team but was forced to include five first-choice players in the starting lineup and several more on the bench. The full-back Chris Latham will start against Canada but is likely to be substituted early.

Australia are already assured of topping their pool regardless of the result against Canada but Connolly said there was still plenty to play for with the team for the quarter-final still to be decided.

"There are some spots and the reserve issue is still up in the air," he said. "There are a few things that will depend on this game."

New Zealand may also be fielding a largely second-string team and reeling from the late loss of Dan Carter, but they are still heavy favourites to maintain their 100 per cent Pool C record when they take on Romania.

The All Blacks have qualified for the quarter-finals, where they will probably take on France in Cardiff, so they have rested most of their key players. Fly-half Carter was one of the few first-choice players named to start, but he pulled out of the squad after picking up a calf strain in training on Thursday.

Luke McAlister, who will play for Sale next season, will take the No 10 jersey, even though Nick Evans is Carter's perennial understudy in that position.

Evans will remain at full-back in the absence of the injured Leon MacDonald and Mils Muliaina.