Sat, Dec 23, 2006 - Page 19 News List

All Blacks looking good for next year's World Cup

AP , NEW YORK

After a historic 2005, the All Blacks were even more formidable this past season in an increasingly destined march to next year's Rugby World Cup crown.

New Zealand enjoyed 12 wins in 13 Tests, mirroring last year with only one loss, but without a Grand Slam tour of the UK or a series victory over the British and Irish Lions to parade. The All Blacks handled Ireland at home and Argentina in Buenos Aires with two squads, won an expanded Tri-Nations with two games to spare, and swept another end-of-season European tour, dropping record 40-point wins on France, England and Wales.

By year's end, coach Graham Henry had used 46 players, 23 of whom scored tries, underscoring the belief of many who think the All Blacks not only have the best team in the world but the second-best, too. They finished a third straight year ranked No. 1, with a record gap on No. 2 France.

France coach Bernard Laporte warned last month that the World Cup it will host will be a bore if nobody stops the All Blacks. His team couldn't, succumbing 47-3 in Lyon and 23-11 in Paris.

Next year will mark 20 years since New Zealand won the inaugural World Cup, and their desperation to end disappointing outcomes in the succeeding 1991, 1995, 1999 and 2003 campaigns has allowed Henry unprecedented latitudes.

His policy of rotating the squad was criticized for devaluing the All Blacks jersey and insulting opponents. But New Zealanders have grown to accept Henry's way, which has netted 32 wins in 36 Tests since 2004, an unbeaten home record, and kept his squad fresh, deep and hungry to play.

Henry also arranged for 22 All Blacks to miss the first two months of next year's Super 14, setting aside provincial aspirations to the anger of the tournament sponsor, so they'll be in prime condition for the World Cup.

Some are counting on New Zealand having already peaked.

"I think it is difficult to see them getting any better and, hopefully, they have mistimed it again and peaked too soon," Wales flanker Martyn Williams said.

Wales' defense of its Six Nations title crumbled under a welter of injuries, and coach Mike Ruddock shockingly quit after two matches. France rebounded from a stunning opening loss to Scotland to win a mediocre tournament on points difference from Ireland, still seeking their first title since 1985. However, the Irish were installed as favorites for the next year's Six Nations after record wins over South Africa and Australia last month.

England promoted Brian Ashton from assistant to coach, replacing Andy Robinson, who oversaw a record-equaling seven consecutive losses from February to last month. Ashton has less than 10 months to galvanize England into offering a respectable World Cup defense.

John Connolly had a mixed first year in charge of Australia, which struggled again to win away from home. The scrum was better but he was yet to sort out his best backline, which lost Mat Rogers to rugby league and Wendell Sailor, who was banned for taking cocaine.

South Africa ended a five-match losing streak, its worst run in the post-apartheid era, by beating New Zealand 21-20 in Rustenburg on a last-gasp penalty, ending the All Blacks' 15-match winning streak. When the Springboks ended a nine-year drought at Twickenham by topping England 25-14, it helped coach Jake White survive a no-confidence vote by his employers.

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