Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Tension mounts ahead of semifinals

CLASH OF THE TITANS The remaining four teams in the tournament are healing up and practicing for their weekend matches that will be a show of power and skill


Australian centre Nathan Grey, center, releases the ball watched by flanker David Croft (on the ground),flanker Phil Waugh, left, and fullback Matthew Burke, right, during a training session in Coffs Harbour, yesterday. The Wallabies are preparing for their semifinal clash with New Zealand in Sydney on Saturday.


France stayed with the starting lineup that got it easily past Ireland while England received good news -- the likely return of flanker Richard Hill for the World Cup semifinal Sunday against Les Bleus.

Australian hooker Brendan Cannon said it doesn't matter if the Wallabies haven't produced their best so far in the tournament because their biggest challenge -- the All Blacks in Saturday's other semifinal -- is ahead of them.

"New Zealand is a side we have a lot of respect for, but certainly don't fear it," Cannon said. "It's the biggest challenge for us so far this tournament."

At the news conference announcing the French team, coach Bernard Laporte denied reports he'd criticized his English opponents, saying the English were confident and not arrogant.

"Some reports said that I said everyone hated the English, but that is not true," Laporte said Wednesday.

"They have a very professional setup, I have a lot of respect for Clive Woodward, who has turned England into the best team in the world," added Laporte. "They have stated they will win the World Cup, but I see that as confidence more than arrogance."

England's confidence received a boost when Hill told a news conference that he had overcome a hamstring strain that has sidelined him for four matches.

The 30-year-old backrower was injured in the opening win over Georgia and his robust style has been a missing link as England's forward pack has failed to perform up to its reputation.

"I am fully fit," the 61-test veteran said. "It's been a very frustrating time for myself and ultimately longer than I expected. But I am available for selection and very much want to play at the weekend."

Woodward has delayed announcing his team until Thursday, reportedly to give Hill as much time as possible to prove his fitness.

France, runner-up at the last World Cup, advanced through the preliminaries as the form team and had a convincing 43-21 win over Ireland in the quarterfinals last weekend.

"There was no need for any changes to the starting 15 -- we were happy with the way we played against Ireland,'' said manager Jo Maso.

There were four changes on the bench, with David Auradou replacing injured lock Oliver Brouzet, Cristian Labit coming in for backrower Patrick Tabacco, Damien Traille in for center Brian Liebenberg and Clement Poitrenaud filling in for Pepito Elhorga.

Brouzet hurt his shoulder against Ireland and was flying back to France on Wednesday. Biarritz fullback Elhorga had returned home for his father's funeral and wouldn't return in time for the match.

After holding the trans-Tasman biggest rugby prize, the Bledisloe Cup, for five successive years from 1998, the Wallabies suffered a severe slide in form against the All Blacks in 2003.

New Zealand thrashed Australia 50-21 at Sydney in July before holding out a slightly improved Wallabies 21-17 at Auckland in August.

Cannon said Wednesday that as the tournament progressed and the standard of opposition improved, the need for the Australians to fix the deficiencies in their game became imperative.

"We've managed to win, and win some games reasonably well, but not playing as well as we'd like," he said. "Our own expectations in terms of our performance are still very high and we're still a fair way off where we'd like to be."

England captain Martin Johnson took a swipe at his critics on Wednesday although, strangely, it was in defense of the French.

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