Victory against Italy was an inevitable start for the All Blacks at the 2003 World Cup but it came with a serious price.

Vice-captain Tana Umaga damaged the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee after a collision with teammate Carlos Spencer 15 minutes into the match in Melbourne.

Spencer staggered back to his job, unlike his tournament training ground exit in 1999, but Umaga, the side's senior centre and potent backline director, had to be helped from the Telstra Dome arena. His exit cast an uncertain gloom over the coaches who had not endeared themselves to many with their aloof approach throughout th4 year.

Whenever John Mitchell was quizzed about the extent of Umaga's problem and the prognosis about a return to action, there were vague answers or none at all. There were unconfirmed reports his rehabilitation was on target but Mitchell did not exude that same assurance.


Eventually the medical staff felt Umaga was fit enough to play the All Blacks last pool game against Wales.

They argued that he should have been used, even if only from the bench, to prove their assessments and to give the coaches wider selection choices and greater leadership for the approaching sudden-death section of the tournament.

If Umaga was not used in that match, they argued it would make it even more difficult to put him into the mix for the playoffs.

The coaches ignored that advice. They had watched Umaga intently at training sessions and felt he was not sharp enough even for a pool game.

In the vacuum they tried Ma'a Nonu but were not convinced his game was suited to test rugby at centre while they also bypassed Mils Muliaina who had shown out strongly for the Blues in that role.

They were concerned about goal-kicking reliability so chose to switch Leon MacDonald from his usual fullback role to centre. For many it was a grisly reminder of the previous World Cup where the All Black selectors, faced with a luxury of talent, decided to play Christian Cullen at centre. Neither decision proved to be a great success.