French Test will be watershed for All Blacks

WITH the final whistle of their 2009 Tri-Nations campaign still ringing in their ears the All Blacks looked north and singled out France in particular to begin tuning up for the 2011 World Cup.

WITH the final whistle of their 2009 Tri-Nations campaign still ringing in their ears the All Blacks looked north and singled out France in particular to begin tuning up for the 2011 World Cup.

After beating the Wallabies 33-6 in Wellington on Saturday to bag second place behind the Springboks in the Tri-Nations, the All Blacks were keen to put a disappointing southern hemisphere season behind them.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry, while full of praise for his side's late revival against the Wallabies, acknowledged the South Africans were clearly the best team in the world.

"At the moment we are struggling to handle that South African pressure ... especially if we don't get good first phase ball," he said.

The Springboks beat the All Blacks in all three Tests they played and took over as the world's top-ranked side, but with the next World Cup only two years away Henry was keen to look ahead rather than dwell on the past.

The six-match end-of-year tour would be a chance for players to play their way into the World Cup selection frame, Henry said yesterday.

"It's an opportunity for the guys to cement themselves into the thinking of the selectors for the rugby World Cup," Henry said.

"It's a good way of guys getting their feet under the table with the All Blacks or not doing so. So there's pressure on individuals to play well but also big Test matches to play as well."

The yardstick for the players could well be to win selection for the French Test in Marseille on November 28, which Henry referred to more than once when questioned about the challenges of the tour.

In recent years, France have earned a reputation as New Zealand's bogey team having knocked them out of the 1999 World Cup semifinals and 2007 World Cup quarterfinals, as well as squaring a two-Test series in New Zealand in June.

Though several veteran All Blacks failed to measure up to their usual high standards this year, Henry dismissed suggestions the northern tour would be a chance to blood new players. He said there would only be one or two new faces in the squad that plays Australia in Tokyo on October 31 followed by Tests against Wales, Italy, England and France, and a match against the Barbarians.

If there are to be big changes in the squad Henry said he would be looking at Super 14 form rather than New Zealand's domestic provincial championship. Henry said All Blacks certain to miss the northern hemisphere tour because of injury are hooker Keven Mealamu, lock Ali Williams and centre Richard Kahui.

Tour schedule: Oct 31: v Australia, Tokyo; Nov 7: v Wales, Cardiff; Nov 14: v Italy, Milan; Nov 21: v England, London; Nov 28: v France, Marseille; Dec 5: v Barbarians, London. - Sapa-AFP

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