Zinzan Brooke defends All Blacks - 'we can win the Cup'

By Daniel Gilhooly of NZPA

Zinzan Brooke was fighting a lone battle to defend the All Blacks today as their record at past World Cups came under the spotlight from four other rugby greats.

New Zealand No 8 Brooke was one of five former players unveiled today as "legends of the game" at a World Cup sponsor's launch -- joining Australian lock John Eales, England lock Martin Johnson, South African first five-eighth Joel Stransky and French centre Philippe Sella.

All five agreed New Zealand were leading the way but the non-All Blacks reckoned next year's tournament was wide open as history showed how the men in black had suffered stage fright when going in as favourites or co-favourites at each of the four World Cups since they won the first edition in 1987.

"We love making the All Blacks favourites. They tend to get to the World Cup and mess it up after peaking in between time," was a typical comment, this time from Stransky, which brought a loud reaction from the French audience.

Brooke agreed there was justification to doubt the claims of the current All Blacks, even though they had swept all before them over the past two years.

"Yes we've come unstuck a few times at previous World Cups but I feel we're in a good situation," the 58-test veteran said, recalling how the last two campaigns had ended at the semifinals stage.

"In 1999 we were a little bit under-strength. We were just about there or thereabouts in 2003 but I don't feel we had the cutting edge.

"I have a totally different feel about this team here.

"New Zealand are on the front foot in terms of their victories and preparation for the World Cup and are certainly capable of winning it."

Brooke tempered his comments, however, adding that "the rub of the green or the bounce of the ball" could render all the best laid plans to waste in the knockout stages.

Eales said if you had to bet your house on any team to win next year in France, New Zealand would be it but suggested a "side bet" on Australia, just as Stransky did for the Springboks.

Johnson even found time to talk up defending champions England, currently on a seven-test losing streak.

"It will be quite good to come in under the radar next year," Johnson said.

"If they can get to the tournament with a few wins under their belt and get into the quarterfinals ... once you're there, as New Zealand have found out, you can be the best team and play great rugby but suddenly another team pulls out a great performance and you get knocked out."

Johnson, the last man to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup, in 2003, described resilience as the most important asset for any team to succeed in 10 months' time.

"There will be times when things don't go your way. There are going to be injuries, you're going to be behind but you need to still come through to win those crucial games.

"We got behind in four games in 2003 but we had a belief in each other that we could come back and win them. We didn't panic."

All the former greats regarded Argentina and Ireland as dark horses next year, something that made Sella "tense" as both teams are in the same pool as France.

All called for Argentina to be included in a regular international tournament -- either the Southern Hemisphere's Tri-Nations or Europe's Six Nations.

- NZPA

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