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All Blacks Can't Ease Off

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

By Daniel Gilhooly of NZPA

Christchurch, June 26 NZPA - Italy represent the easiest test rugby opponents for the All Blacks on this year's calendar but relaxation has been in short supply in Christchurch this week.

Not since Samoa last year and before that Portugal and Romania at the 2007 World Cup will the New Zealand team start such short-price favourites for a test.

The Italians were also crushed 76-14 at that tournament and, at the end of a long season, they should not threaten to end their nine-loss record against the All Blacks.

However, worry lines that formed on coach Graham Henry's face during the drawn series against France this month have not disappeared.

His team were poor in the loss at Dunedin and while the result reversal at Wellington last Saturday was an improvement, the execution of his players remained well below the standards Henry always demands.

What's more, an injury crisis that was threatening to improve only worsened when key lock Ali Williams aggravated his Achilles tendon and he could be sidelined for the rest of 2009.

The Tri-Nations is just three weeks away and shaping as a tougher assignment every day.

Henry today dispensed with the usual pre-match rhetoric about not looking beyond the current opponents as he addressed some selection headaches that loom ahead of the opening Bledisloe Cup test at Auckland on July 18.

"I've spent considerable time this week thinking about the future and I think we need to do that," he said.

Players such as winger Joe Rokocoko and centre Isaia Toeava must prove they are worth persisting with, inside backs Luke McAlister and Brendon Leonard need to make a fluent return to the top flight while lock Isaac Ross and loose forwards Tanerau Latimer and Kieran Read are still taking baby steps at this level.

Even more raw are two debutants, winger Lelia Masaga and prop Wyatt Crockett, while three uncapped forwards lurk on a remarkably raw reserves bench.

Henry said very few players this week could afford to rest on their laurels.

"They're always on trial, none of them are complacent enough to think their position is always going to be with the All Blacks," he said.

"They're all on a bit of an edge. The Tri-Nations squad is announced next Saturday week and they know about that so there's always a bit of an edge on that."

It has been a more tranquil scene in the Italian camp this week, not surprising given the way the world's 12th-ranked team pushed Australia closer than expected in two 20-point losses across the Tasman.

Captain and world class No 8 Sergio Parisse was taking the same pragmatic approach today as his South African coach Nick Mallett.

"We are not the favourites for this game. We don't have the pressure of the result but for us it's very important to finish this tour well," said Parisse, who has developed into Italy's premier player and figurehead since his debut against the All Blacks as a 19-year-old in Hamilton seven years ago.

He was among seven Azzurri players in the starting 15 who were thrashed at Marseille at the World Cup.

"It was a nightmare and we want another chance to play against them," he said.

"Sometimes we have a psychological block when we play against them. Sometimes we maybe respect them too much and maybe we don't try to play our game."

Parisse said another 60 or 70-point loss would be a massive disappointment.

He would ask his team "not to lose by 30 and we must fight 80 minutes and give everything".

Ticket sales had increased to 16,000 today, leaving officials at the Canterbury and New Zealand unions praying that forecast rain stays away.

Still, their goal of a 20,000-strong crowd appears forlorn.

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