All Blacks face biggest match at World Cup
Updated: October 14, 2011, 01:50
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) All Blacks coach Graham Henry rates the Rugby World Cup semifinal against Australia as New Zealand's most important match in a decade. Millions of New Zealanders would call that an understatement.
It may be moot but many Kiwis argue Sunday's semifinal at Eden Park against New Zealand's oldest and fiercest rival is the most important match the All Blacks have ever played, the peak of 482 tests in the last 106 years.
The match draws importance from the fact New Zealand hasn't won the World Cup since the first tournament was held here in 1987; from the succession of errors, accidents and upsets that have seen it fail despite its frequent favoritism at five intervening tournaments; from the crushing disappointment of its quarterfinal defeat by France four years ago; and from the heightened expectation because the tournament is once again on home soil.
Just to ratchet up local anxieties, the team that stands between the All Blacks and a third World Cup final appearance is the one that New Zealanders most hate to lose to.
The All Blacks say they aren't concerned that it's Australia, that they would be prepared to play any team in the semifinals and Australia at any stage of the tournament. They say they're aware of the stakes in Sunday's match, that as it approaches they're calm and concentrating on producing their best performance.
And nor are the Wallabies without burdens. They are the Tri-Nations champions and have every reason to consider themselves the equal of the All Blacks. They're young and they have a chance to become the first team to win the Rugby World Cup three times.
They also have to contend with the fact they could be without fullback Kurtley Beale, who will undergo a fitness test on Saturday, and that they haven't won at Eden Park since 1986: 10 of the starting XV named for Sunday's match weren't born when Australia last won in Auckland.
The Wallabies have been happy this week to wind up the pressure on the All Blacks, taking every opportunity to remind them of their history of World Cup failures, and of the likely reaction of New Zealanders if they lose.
"Forget about us for a minute. They're the No. 1-ranked team in the world and they're in a country where they expect them to win the World Cup, so regardless of what happens the public expect that,'' Wallabies flanker Rocky Elsom said. "I can't speak for them, but you get a feeling around town they won't tolerate anything less.''
New Zealand-born Quade Cooper, the Wallabies flyhalf who has been under intense personal pressure after a moderate quarterfinal performance, deflected a little onto the All Blacks.
"They're supposed to have won the World Cup for the past three tournaments and this is no different,'' he said. "A lot of pressure is on them to win this competition on their home soil. I'm sure they'll be more worried about how they go about their game than myself.''
Cooper will be marking Aaron Cruden, the third-choice flyhalf after star playmaker Dan Carter and his understudy Colin Slade were ruled out with tournament-ending groin injuries. That has heightened concern among New Zealanders.
None of the All Blacks is unaware of that tension but few among them carry more pressure than coaches Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith. The trio led the All Blacks to the last World Cup when New Zealand's hopes were higher than ever of success, but resulted in a quarterfinal exit. Despite that failure, they were given four more years to deliver a World Cup victory.
The overlooked candidate for the head coach's role was Robbie Deans, who will coach Australia on Sunday. Henry continues to play down any personal rivalry with his New Zealand-born opposite.
"To me it's not personal,'' he said. "It could be - what's the name of the Prime Minister of Australia? Mrs Gillard - it could be Mrs Gillard coaching Australia. It's one team playing another team in a game of sport, trying to do your job. It's as simple as that really.''
Henry also played down the Australia-New Zealand rivalry, an aspect of Sunday's match which, for many fans, makes it most compelling.
"We want to win this cup,'' he said. "It could be South Africa or England or whoever. It's a semifinal, you need to win it, and if you win next week you win a cup. Simple as that really.
"It happens to be Australia. They're big brother to us in many ways because they're a country of 20 million compared with 4 1/2 million and that is a positive relationship I think. It brings the best out of New Zealanders but as far as this rugby tournament is concerned it's a semifinal that you need to win to win the cup.''
Henry was asked about the mood in the All Blacks camp as the match approached and admitted it was hard to fathom but seemed calm.
"Sometimes you're wrong and that's what the frustrating thing is,'' he said. "There's no guarantee you can put your finger exactly on the right pulse.
"As I say, if you're not focused now you'll never be focused and I think there's a quiet focus there, a quiet determination. The guys are a bit quieter than usual, probably because it's such a huge game, the biggest game these guys have played in 10 years.''
Australia: Kurtley Beale (or Adam Ashley-Cooper), James O'Connor, Adam Ashley-Cooper (or Anthony Fainga'a), Pat McCabe, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Radike Samo, David Pocock, Rocky Elsom, James Horwill (captain), Dan Vickerman, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu. Reserves: Tatafu Polota Nau, James Slipper, Rob Simmons, Ben McCalman, Luke Burgess, Berrick Barnes, Anthony Fainga'a (or Rob Horne).
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Victor Vito, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Sonny Bill Williams.