Pool A preview: NZ v Canada
Pool A preview: NZ v CanadaSHARE
Rating their own performances against vastly different benchmarks will be the game within the game when Canada meet New Zealand in the final Rugby World Cup 2011 Pool A match in Wellington on Sunday.
The All Blacks – RWC hosts for the second time in the history of this tournament – are already confirmed quarterfinalists, so will use the match at the Regional Stadium to fine-tune their game and give the under-exposed players in their squad more playing time.
Twelfth-ranked Canada, meanwhile, claim they will measure how they play against their own pre-determined goals, regardless of the final score against their fearsome opponents.
New Zealand coach Graham Henry, who will celebrate his 100th Test in charge of the All Blacks on Sunday, made nine changes to the team that beat France 37-17 – the last change, at the 11th hour, seeing captain courageous Richie McCaw missing out with a foot niggle and mercurial first five-eighth Dan Carter being ruled out with a groin injury.
Talk, however, is that Carter’s injury could be more serious than McCaw’s, with TV channel 3 News, quoting unnamed sources, reporting that Carter was “absolutely” in doubt to play any further role in the World Cup.
Such a scenario would be catastrophic to New Zealand’s title-winning chances, with back-up Colin Slade nowhere near Carter’s level.
The other changes to the NZ XV saw fullback Mils Muliaina handed his first RWC 2011 hit-out for what will be his 99th cap – with injuries and the emergence of Israel Dagg combining to sideline him thus far – and scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan being given a start to celebrate his 50th Test match.
Crucially, however, star No.8 Kieran Read will make a welcome return from an ankle injury sustained during the Tri-Nations. Read and Crusaders teammate, winger Zac Guildford – who has been in the news for his self-confessed off-field issues – will also be making their first RWC appearances.
Henry explained: “We just want to make sure that the backbone of the team is ticking over all the time and the guys that need football get an opportunity.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen on the injury front and who is going to be required for finals football.”
The neutral might argue that Canada, who pulled off a surprise 25-20 win over Tonga before losing 46-19 to the French and drawing 23-23 with Japan, are on a hiding to nothing.
They have been hit by the absence through injury of goalkicking fullback James Pritchard, but coach Kieran Crowley has otherwise named a full-strength Canadian team.
“We decided when we came to the World Cup to field the best team in every game,” said Crowley, a former All Blacks fullback and national selector.
“We’ve made a massive improvement at the World Cup,” he said. “I’d rather be sat here with three wins, of course, but our performances against France and Tonga were pretty damn good, I was really pleased with those two.
“But we showed a lack of maturity against Japan.”
Crowley struggled to find any weak points in the All Blacks’ game, warning that their starting XV would be fired up for good individual performances ahead of the knockout phase of the tournament.
“You don’t have weaknesses when you’re the All Blacks or South Africa,” he said. “We just have to attack areas where we think there is a creak in their structure.
“The All Blacks will be pushing their claims for a quarterfinal spot.
“We’ve got some goals within the team and if we hit three or four of those, we’ll be happy.”
With Canada no doubt a bit tired ahead of this big occasion, both mentally and physically, the All Blacks – even with McCaw missing out – are well rested and no doubt wanting to lift their game to another level going into the knockout stage of RWC 2011.
Crowley’s counterpart, however, would take nothing for granted ahead of kick-off, with Henry saying: “I’ve been impressed with them. Canada are always a big physical side that don’t get fazed by anybody and they’ll stand up and be counted.
“They’ve developed their attack play a lot more over the last couple of years and (they) played well against the French, I thought.”
Players to Watch:
For New Zealand: How times have changed… Just a few months ago, the All Blacks starting a big World Cup match without Mils Muliaina at fullback seemed unthinkable. Now, ahead of his country’s final pool match against Canada, friends and foes alike are wondering if his return to the ABs’ starting XV is indeed merit based as he gets set to win his 99th cap. Either way, he is worth watching… as is the man threatening to steal his No.15 shirt, Israel Dagg who will start on the right-wing. Lastly, and by no means the least, Zac Guildford completes the New Zealand back three. He should be watched in his first start of the 2011 World Cup (and given his off-field battles), as should Crusaders teammate Kieran Read – back at No.8 after fully recovering from his ankle troubles.
For Canada: Centres DTH van der Merwe and Ryan Smith have both been impressive at the 2011 RWC. They will have their hands full against Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams – fearsome opponents for anyone, nevermind the underdogs! Up front, openside flanker Chauncey O’Toole, so impressive at RWC 2011, fill fancy himself against new No.7 Victor Vito who is playing out of position in the absence of that man McCaw.
Head to Head: The battle between Conrad Smith (New Zealand) and DTH van der Merwe (Canada) should be one to savour – even if, as expected, the Kiwis dominate possession and the latter spends his afternoon defending more than attacking. SA-born Van der Merwe has been a star performer for the Canucks at the World Cup, whilst the elusive Smith is easily the most underrated member of the All Blacks’ World Cup squad. Up front, the battle between hard-as-nails Kiwi flanker Jerome Kaino and his Canadian opponent, Adam Kleeberger (he of the magic beard!), should be a no-holds-barred contest… with big hits and all the usual physicality.
2007: New Zealand won 64-13 in Hamilton
2003: New Zealand won 68-6 in Melbourne (World Cup)
1995: New Zealand won 73-7 in Auckland
1991: New Zealand won 29-13 in Lille (World Cup)
Prediction: There is only one winner here, ladies and gents; the Men in Black. The margin? The All Blacks by 60 points – even without McCaw and Carter.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Victor Vito, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Brad Thorn, 19 Anthony Boric, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Isaia Toeava.
Canada: 15 Matt Evans, 14 Conor Trainor, 13 DTH van der Merwe, 12 Ryan Smith, 11 Phil Mackenzie, 10 Ander Monro, 9 Ed Fairhurst, 8 Aaron Carpenter, 7 Chauncey O’Toole, 6 Adam Kleeberger, 5 Jamie Cudmore, 4 Jebb Sinclair, 3 Jason Marshall, 2 Pat Riordan (captan), 1 Hubert Buydens.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Hamilton, 17 Scott Franklin, 18 Andrew Tiedemann, 19 Tyler Hotson, 20 Nanyak Dala, 21 Sean White, 22 Nathan Hirayama.
Date: Sunday, October 2
Venue: Regional Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 15.30 (02.30 GMT)
Expected weather: Cloudy, rain at times. Northerly winds. Min 11°C, Max 17°C.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), Carlo Damasco (Italy)
TMO: Matt Goddard (Australia)
rugbyworldcup.com, AFP & rugby365.com