Fri, Nov 03, 2006 - Page 23 News List

Southern rugby powers set to invade Europe

AFP , PARIS

The final series of the traditional autumn Tests in the northern hemisphere prior to next year's Rugby World Cup begin this weekend, with the All Blacks once again in pole position.

However, with the Kiwis having choked twice in a row in the semi-finals and not having won since the inaugural 1987 World Cup tournament, their rivals will be looking for any chinks in their armor.

Hence the reason why their present coach, Graham Henry, along with his two assistants, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, are taking no risks this time around.

Unlike the Springboks, the All Blacks have selected the strongest squad possible.

"This is a very important trip for us, a road test for the World Cup in France next year," Henry said. "It's our last chance to play in Europe before the tournament, so we're keen to get things right."

England would love to get one thing right -- namely winning a match, as they are on the brink of losing six-in-a-row for the first time since 1971 -- but their coach Andy Robinson, who has gone from hero to zero since assisting Sir Clive Woodward to lift the World Cup in 2003, is defiant.

However, a series of poor results in the autumn -- there are also Tests against Argentina and South Africa -- and Robinson could well be surfeit to requirements, even with the World Cup so close.

"I don't think you can say Andy will stay in charge whatever the results are," said Rob Andrew, England's recently appointed first Director of Elite Rugby.

Perhaps England's best hope of pulling off a morale-boosting win could come against the South Africans, who boast few well-known faces as coach Jake White has opted to leave many of his seasoned veterans to rest at home.

The Springboks will face a vibrant Irish side first-up -- again coached by Eddie O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan too is keen to try out some new faces, but unlike England he has effectively a full complement of players as they have been wrapped in cotton wool for the early part of the season.

After the Springboks, the Irish face the Australians.

The Wallabies will have warmed-up by starting against Wales this weekend and John Connolly, otherwise known as "Knuckles" for his no-nonsense approach, is keen that the Wallabies make a better impression this tour than last year.

The French lie in wait with two Tests against the All Blacks and while Henry might have indicated they were the two Tests he was most focussed on, the French are not as settled a side as might be expected.

Chief among their worries is who will end up as their fly-half and with the mercurial Frederic Michalak injured, bulky center Damien Traille has got the nod ahead of livelier young pretenders Lionel Beauxis of Stade Francais and Bourgoin's Benjamin Boyet.

Indeed, it might well be Wales who pose the biggest problems for the Aussies and the All Blacks, as the Welsh appear to have regrouped after the turmoil of Mike Ruddock's resignation back in February and a poor Six Nations under stand-in Scott Johnson.

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