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Time for the real All Blacks to turn up at Rugby World Cup

After 3 hit-and-miss displays, New Zealand looks to make a statement at Rugby World Cup

Time for the real All Blacks to turn up at Rugby World Cup

NEWCASTLE, England (AP) -- The Wallabies produced the slickest performance of the Rugby World Cup in knocking out host team England. The Springboks regained some of their swagger in big wins over Samoa and Scotland.

Time for the All Blacks to turn up at the party, too.

By the team's extremely high standards, it's been far from vintage New Zealand in its first three games of the pool stage -- toughing it out against Argentina, failing to flow against Namibia, and error-strewn against Georgia.

Three wins and 14 points on the board, sure. But hardly displays to justify the pre-tournament tag of huge favorite.

With qualification to the quarterfinals secured and no real difference between finishing first or second, there's little riding on Friday's night game against Tonga in Newcastle in terms of the pool standings.

But the All Blacks will want to take some sort of momentum into the knockout stage and generate some intensity so they are battle-hardened for a last-eight game against Ireland or France.

Playing down suggestions his team is "undercooked," New Zealand coach Steve Hansen says: "There's no potential for that. We knew we were coming into a pool similar to what we had in 2007 and 2011, and we've devised a strategy for that.

"We've worked incredibly hard on the training pitch -- that may not?have been reflected in the quality of the performance that everyone expects from us but it's more a reflection of how hard we've been working off the pitch."

Hansen has been blessed with fortune on the injury front in this tournament, with only niggles or minor problems affecting his players. A hip injury picked up by captain Richie McCaw, which will rule him out of the Tonga game, may be of concern, though.

McCaw hobbled out of the 43-10 win over Georgia on Friday with what he said were shin and quad injuries. Two months away from his 35th birthday, the iconic flanker is hoping his battered body will hold up in one last World Cup campaign, just like in the 2011 tournament when he fought on despite a foot injury.

"If we were playing a final, he would be fine," Hansen says, "but we are just not prepared to take any risks with anyone that's not 100 percent."

And Hansen has a message for All Blacks fans: Don't worry.

"We've had plenty of gasps from home before, but we're OK with it," he says, "and the people that are anxious about it don't need to be anxious."

Ma'a Nonu is back from a shoulder injury to take his place at inside center, and will become the sixth All Black to reach a century of tests. McCaw, one of the other five, continues to be an inspiration to Nonu.

"He's the best rugby player that's played the game, and is still playing at the top of his game," Nonu says. "Similar to Dan Carter as well. We played together first in 2003, and just playing alongside those guys inspires me to keep going."

While McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks and maybe Colin Slade have at least one more test left -- injury permitting -- in their illustrious careers, this is likely to be the end for Tonga captain Nili Latu.

Tonga is four points behind second-place Argentina in Pool C and needs a bonus-point win in Newcastle just to stand a chance of advancing. Given that the Tongans have lost all four of their previous meetings against the All Blacks -- including three at the Rugby World Cup -- and got no closer than a 31-point loss, it appears to be a hopeless cause.

So, Latu, a hard-tackling, 33-year-old openside, is likely to bid farewell to international rugby at St. James' Park, which is just round the corner from the club where he'll play the final years of his career: Newcastle Falcons.

"It's just a perfect way of going out,"?Latu said. "I played a bit of rugby over in New Zealand with Richie, and a lot of the All Black boys are my friends as well.

"It'll be good to rub shoulders with them, but this could be my first and last game against the All Blacks."

Tonga center Siale Piatau is the brother of New Zealand winger Charles Piatau, who narrowly missed out on selection for the World Cup, and a cousin of the All Blacks' record try-scorer, Doug Howlett.

Piatau will be one of six Tonga players to start a fourth straight game in this World Cup, in just 21 days.

Updated : 2021-09-22 20:09 GMT+08:00