Rugby-Awesome All Blacks widen the gulf

LONDON Sun Nov 26, 2006 6:41pm GMT

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LONDON Nov 26 (Reuters) - A year after completing a grand slam of victories over the Home Unions, New Zealand have further emphasised how far ahead of the rest of the world they are with another series of awesome wins over the cream of Europe.

With the World Cup 10 months away, the All Blacks are heavy odds-on favourites to lift the trophy for the first time in 20 years.

Who is likely to put up the strongest challenge, however, is tough to predict after an intriguing month of 20 internationals that left only Ireland, the other side with a 100 percent record, and Argentina with much to celebrate.

"It was a big tour with four tough tests and we are very proud of the players," said All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.

His side began by handing England their worst Twickenham defeat, 41-20, and it was a sign of how far the world champions had fallen that New Zealand coach Graham Henry said the game was a virtual warm-up for the two-test challenge in France.

Two years ago Henry identified the games against the World Cup hosts as the most important in his side's development but even he could never have dreamed things would go so well.

Their 47-3 demolition job in Lyon was France's heaviest home defeat but even that scoreline failed to do justice to their total domination of a team expected to be the biggest obstacle to their World Cup dream.

A week later at the Stade de France, venue of the 2007 World Cup final, France were reduced to damage limitation but still lost 23-11.

WONDERFUL MONTH

There was no let-up a week later when the All Blacks rounded off a wonderful month by blasting Wales 45-10 in Cardiff.

"It was a lesson we needed to learn. Their standard is what we have to take on board," said Wales coach Gareth Jenkins, voicing the thoughts of the rest of the rugby-playing world.

The only crumb of comfort for the chasing pack is that the All Blacks have looked invincible before, only to fail on the big stage.

Ireland chalked up an impressive hat-trick of wins over South Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Their first-half display in the 21-6 win over Australia was widely praised as the most complete performance in their history and, after the Springbok win, ensured their first back-to-back successes over two Tri-Nations teams.

They signed off with a 61-17 thrashing of the Pacific Islanders in the last game played at Lansdowne Road, the oldest test ground in the world, which is to be rebuilt next year.

Australia were unimpressive as they experimented with their backs but they at least learned that Matt Giteau is a more than competent replacement for veteran scrumhalf George Gregan, who sat out the trip.

South Africa also left several experienced players at home and, after a sticky start when they were outclassed by Ireland, several of the new faces showed promise, not least exciting fullback Francois Steyn.

They finished by beating England for the first time in eight attempts, 25-14, their first away win for a year and maybe enough to save coach Jake White's job.

NO IMAGINATION

It looks all over though for England coach Andy Robinson after the ailing world champions lost three out of four, playing error-strewn rugby without any of the verve or imagination he insisted they were working towards.

The record loss to New Zealand was actually their most encouraging performance but it went downhill fast with a first home defeat by Argentina, a late 23-21 win over the Springboks then Saturday's defeat. Twickenham has been expanded to hold 82,000 and many of them gave full vent to their disappointment as they booed England off.

Robinson says he has no intention of resigning after eight defeats in nine games but the bookmakers make him odds-on to be out of the job by the Six Nations championship in February.

Argentina added weight to their claim for inclusion in a major annual tournament with their Twickenham win and a single-point defeat by France.

France face the Pumas again in the first game of the World Cup in a pool which also includes Ireland.

The probable prize for the runners-up is a quarter-final against New Zealand.

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