All Blacks starting to panic?

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Graham Henry (File)
Graham Henry (File)

Brisbane - New Zealand coach Graham Henry was at pains to reassure an anxious nation that the loss of the Tri-Nations was merely a bump on the World Cup road, but glum faces across the coaching board suggested the mountain had become a little harder to climb.

The All Blacks' 25-20 defeat by Australia at Lang Park on Saturday was their second in a row, and came a week after Henry sent a second-string side to South Africa to fumble their way to an 18-5 defeat against the Springboks.

The 65-year-old former schoolmaster, a model of tranquility throughout the buildup in Brisbane, was back to his cantankerous best when grilled by reporters demanding to know how the result could be good for any team's World Cup preparations.

"Going back over the history, there's no blueprint that winning a Tri-Nations is the recipe for winning a rugby World Cup," Henry told reporters, flanked by stony-faced captain Richie McCaw who was wearing a frown and several bruises.

"Hopefully if there was any complacency in this group, it's well gone now. I think that will be an advantage going forward."

Henry does have history on his side, with South Africa finishing last in the 2007 Tri-Nations after resting their top players, and then going on to sweep the World Cup.

But pride and the All Blacks' relentless hunger for silverware put paid to any notions of bringing a second-string side to Brisbane and may also have reaped a bitter harvest with injuries to key players.

Back-row enforcer Kieran Read limped off the ground with an ankle injury early in the first half and was joined by flanker Adam Thomson who suffered a hyperextension of his elbow.

Their losses unsettled the All Blacks' structure, allowing the Wallabies to sprint to a 20-3 lead at the break, and may yet have repercussions for Henry's World Cup plans with the tournament's Sept. 9 kick-off looming.

"We're not sure how serious those are, so that will be a concern on the wait of getting a report on those," said Henry.

While praising the All Blacks for their spirited second-half fightback, Henry lamented his charges' sloppy, bloodless start and reminded his players that they had to justify their place in the 30-man World Cup squad.

The All Blacks' imperious record and status as perennial favourites has been their cross to bear and the side will face enormous expectation at home to end their 24-year wait for a second World Cup win since their triumph in the inaugural 1987 edition.

Like Henry, captain McCaw was similarly scathing of his team's lack of intensity early against the Wallabies but said the scale of the World Cup task had become clearer, at least.

"There's very little between these teams," said McCaw. "It's how you turn up, it's the mental state and how you turn up and we saw that tonight, especially in the first half.

"I guess it's a goodly reminder that winning big Test matches you've got to start well."

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