New Zealand takes centre stage

After a difficult year, Rugby World Cup hosts are 'ready to party' as All Blacks skipper McCaw closes in on 100 Tests.

    McCaw and his team are welcomed by a traditional Maori warrior during the World Cup welcoming ceremony as the rugby-mad country prepare for Friday's opener against Tonga [GALLO/GETTY]

    After an earthquake and a mining disaster rocked New Zealand earlier this year, the Rugby World Cup organising chief said the country was 'ready to have fun'.

    New Zealand's second largest city Christchurch was devastated last February after an earthquake killed 181 people and destroyed much of the city.

    That followed the death of 29 miners after a methane gas explosion at the Pike River mine in November.

    "It's been a pretty tough 12 months or so in New Zealand with what's happened in Christchurch, with what's happened in Pike River with the mining disasters, the economic situation," tournament chief Martin Snedden told reporters at Eden Park on Wednesday.

    "I think the country is ready to have fun. I think it is ready to have a party".


    New Zealand preview

    Best World Cup performance:
    Champions 1987

    Last World Cup:
    Lost in quarterfinals to France

    World ranking: 1
    Captain: Richie McCaw
    Coach: Graham Henry.
    World Cup win-loss record: 30-6.
    Key Player: Dan Carter

    Undoubtedly the No. 1-ranked team in the world between World
    Cups, with depth in almost every position; in McCaw and Carter, the All
    Blacks have two of the best players in the game; home advantage could be key.

    A tendency to lose at precisely the wrong time, evidenced by
    its inability to win a second World Cup ever since 1987, when it won the
    inaugural edition on home soil.

    New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, who this tournament can become the first All Black to play 100 Tests, is to be the 'face' of an appeal by World Cup organisers designed to raise funds to support rugby in Christchurch.

    The city's Lancaster Park, one of world rugby union's best-known venues, was due to stage several World Cup pool matches and two quarter-finals before the February 22 earthquake that killed 181 people led to the games being relocated.

    In good news for McCaw, his nearest rival Mils Muliaina was a surprise omission from their opening World Cup match squad.

    McCaw will play his 99th Test in the opening match against Tonga on Friday and barring injury, he should reach his century against Japan in the All Blacks second Pool A match.

    The 30-year-old McCaw, who has been named the world player of the year a record three times, played his first Test against Ireland in 2001 two years before Muliaina made his debut against England.

    The All Blacks selectors have shown their faith in McCaw by consistently selecting him as the only specialist number seven in their squad.

    From his 98 Tests played so far, McCaw has only tasted defeat 12 times. He has been the All Blacks captain in 61 Tests and scored 19 tries.

    While he is unrivalled as the All Blacks openside flanker, the 31-year-old Muliaina is now under pressure from rising fullback Israel Dagg who will play against Tonga.

    Muliaina, who like McCaw goes into the tournament on 98 Tests, could not even make the bench for Friday's tournament opening match after being among nine changes to the All Blacks side which lost to Australia two weeks ago.

    Although Muliaina has been an automatic selection for several years, head coach Graham Henry said he was "having a bit of a flat patch at the moment". 

    SOURCE: Agencies


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