More woes for Kiwis

AUCKLAND: New Zealand’s injury woes deepened yesterday just three days before the World Cup, as Australian star James O’Connor paid the price for embarrassingly missing a highly publicised team function.

As the clock ticked down to Friday’s opening ceremony, Argentina announced an experienced line-up for their crunch clash with England and France made wholesale changes for their match with Japan.

But All Blacks jitters grew as prop Tony Woodcock, who only returned from ligament damage in August, suffered a hamstring strain and joined Adam Thomson (elbow) and Kieran Read (ankle) in the medical room.

Woodcock now faces a race to be fit for Friday’s tournament-opener against Tonga at Auckland’s Eden Park, which will be attended by a string of foreign dignitaries including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“We’re hoping he’ll be okay. He’s got a bit of a twinge in his hamstring. They think it’s just scar tissue from the previous hamstring he had a month ago,” assistant coach Steve Hansen said.

The favourites are bidding to erase years of angst by claiming rugby’s biggest prize on home turf, but are coming off the back of an indifferent build-up following Tri-Nations defeats to South Africa and Australia.

The All Blacks also admitted they would ditch their controversial rotation policy and stick with a core first XV after a series of World Cup flops, including their 2007 quarter-final defeat to France.

“Clearly, we’ve got a group of players that are going to play a lot of the games,” Hansen said.

“I don’t know that you will see the same 15 totally, we just can’t do that we don’t think, but you might see the same 10 or 12 on a regular basis,” he added.

Meanwhile Australia’s O’Connor was named on the bench for their opener against Italy as he failed to regain his starting place after skipping the Wallabies’ glittering squad announcement in Sydney last month.

O’Connor has already served a ban which ruled him out of the Tri-Nations decider with New Zealand for his gaffe, which local media said was linked to a late night on the tiles.

“He (O’Connor) wasn’t available to us in the last instance, he is on this occasion and he has been selected on the bench which is one step closer,” said coach Robbie Deans.

Argentina opted for experience for their opener against 2003 winners England, making just one change from their last team which was beaten by Wales last month.

Hooker Mario Ledesma will become the oldest Argentine World Cup player at 38 years and 116 days old, while captain Felipe Contepomi and Ledesma will both be playing their fourth edition of rugby’s showpiece.

France made nine changes for their first game against Japan, who are bidding to shed their “minnow” status before hosting Asia’s first World Cup in 2019.

Coach Marc Lievremont replaced six of his eight forwards as well as his half-back partnership and one of his wingers for Saturday’s match in Auckland. — AFP

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