Sat, Jun 02, 2007 - Page 19 News List

All Blacks face below-par France

SHORT OF STARS Although France are without most of their senior internationals there are All Blacks who have not been in form recently and who they can attempt to exploit

AFP , AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand's No. 8 Chris Masoe, left, works with strength and conditioning coach Ashley Jones at Eden Park Stadium, Auckland, yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

The All Blacks launch their World Cup build-up as overwhelming favorites against a below-par French side today but cautioning against expectations of a substantial scoreline.

New Zealand's skipper Richie McCaw set the ground rules yesterday when he underlined the significance of the first of seven Tests the All Blacks, ranked the No. 1 side in the world, will play before the World Cup in five months.

"The guys are pretty happy to be back in this environment and are looking forward to what's going to be a big year. They want to start it off pretty well," he said. "It's important to get the first week right ... so hopefully we can put a performance together that we're happy with tomorrow."

While club championship play-offs in France forced French coach Bernard Laporte to field a "best-of-the-rest" team against New Zealand, McCaw said the All Blacks would still have to be on top form if they wanted to win.

"I don't think it's too difficult [not knowing the opposition]. We have had a lot of things that we have had to worry about ourselves, so in that regard it's made sure we look at ourselves first," he said.

In two Tests at the end of last year the All Blacks piled on 70 points against France. But with less than a week together since then, and hints of rustiness, coach Graham Henry cautioned their immediate focus had to be on getting the basics right.

"We just want to make sure our set piece is sound, we use the ball well ... that we play a very constructive game and build on that constructive game," he said.

Unusually for an All Blacks home Test, it is unlikely to be a sell-out crowd at Eden Park.

Henry said this suggested the public had decided the side would not be good enough, but that he did not see it that way.

"It's easy to play the underdog tag, and they can do that obviously, but I don't think we should be sucked in," he said.

Although France are without most of their senior internationals -- only lock Pascal Pape survives from the starting line-up when they last played the All Blacks seven months ago -- there are areas of the All Blacks play that they can attempt to exploit.

Isaia Toeava is given another chance in midfield after failing to fire last year, an out-of-sorts Joe Rokocoko could not make the Blues Super 14 side this year, and Chris Masoe is being tested as a back rower in case he is required to cover later in the year for the regular Rodney So'oialo.

Rokocoko is one of many All Blacks held back from the first half of the Super 14 competition under Henry's World Cup fitness masterplan because he did not live up to expectations when he began playing.

McCaw and kingpin flyhalf Dan Carter, among others, also turned in mediocre performances and Carter said they could not be expected to produce their best immediately.

"I wasn't too happy with my form but I feel more comfortable with each game and I'll be looking to progress each week," he said. "A lot of the guys found it pretty tough getting back into their franchises but it's been enjoyable getting back into this camp -- I know I tend to lift another gear when I put on the black jersey."

But even a sub-par All Blacks side should produce too much quality play for a French unit starting with six Test novices and with another five on the bench.

"It will be difficult to win with this young side," said veteran back Thomas Castaignede.

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