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Weary All Blacks Battle Demons In Test Leadup

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Fuseworks Media
Weary All Blacks Battle Demons In Test Leadup

By Mark Geenty of NZPA

Marseille, Nov 27 NZPA - The All Blacks' mental strength will get its sternest test here on Sunday (NZT), with some admitting France present the tourists' toughest motivational assignment of their rugby season.

It is all very well talking about reclaiming the Dave Gallaher Trophy, avenging the 22-27 defeat in Dunedin in June and completing their five-match tour unbeaten.

But the All Blacks say they struggled through the early part of the week, a point acknowledged by coach Graham Henry as they feel the effects of a long tour and a season that began for some in January.

Centre Conrad Smith, one of the All Blacks' senior statesmen with 32 tests to his name, said the players were "a bit flat and slow" after beating England 19-6 last weekend and took time to hit the ground running here.

"For me it's more the mental thing and I've never experienced that before," Smith said.

"I've always loved every chance to play for the All Blacks. I'm not saying that's any different but it has been tough after three or four years of doing it, and spending a lot of time away."

It is a symptom of the packed schedule, with the end-of-season tours excellent money-makers for the New Zealand Rugby Union, as the All Blacks contributed to sellouts at Tokyo's National Stadium, Millennium Stadium, San Siro and Twickenham.

Then next weekend there's the Barbarians at Twickenham before the All Blacks arrive home on December 8.

Said Smith: "It's been a tough week. Each week you take longer to wind into it.

"The first week when you come on tour you could probably play the game on a Tuesday, then slowly it gets longer. We'll probably just be ready by Saturday this time around."

Players have been allowed a hotel room to themselves here to help keep them fresh, after having to share rooms for most of the tour.

Smith said today's final training at Stade Jean Bouin eased his mind, a sharp session in warm sunshine.

It was otherwise a low-key week for the All Blacks in this bustling port city, where soccer team Olympique Marseille dominate and it was difficult to imagine a rugby test was looming.

That will change when the French team arrive from their Paris base overnight (NZT) and All Blacks supporters from Britain pour into town and pack out the bars and eateries which line the idyllic Vieux Port.

Stade Velodrome will be packed with 60,000-plus fans, a fortress for the Thierry Dusautoir-led France who have lost just one of their nine tests there, against Argentina in 2004.

They will be the fresher unit, having just begun their international season with a 20-13 win over the Springboks and a hammering of Samoa.

Smith said the All Blacks were determined to finish with a flourish and quell France's physical dominance from Dunedin, having given themselves pass marks for their unbeaten tour to date.

The biggest talking points have been their defence, having kept Wales, Italy and England tryless, and their inability to finish off attacking chances, scoring just three tries themselves.

Smith is happy the backline have at least been creating opportunities, and he is not unduly concerned.

He thinks the test will be poised on a knife-edge, and the senior players including Richie McCaw and Dan Carter -- who weren't there in Dunedin -- may prove the difference.

"We talked about the core group of guys, the leaders, they're the ones that win you big games like this. They're the ones that have got to front.

"It might be a bit of magic and it might be the fact you don't make mistakes which is often the case. Just cool heads at the right times."

The All Blacks have won their past three tests against France on French soil, posting 40 points in Lyon in 2006 and Paris in 2004.

But their only clash at Stade Velodrome saw France win 42-33 in 2000.

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