Rugby World Cup 2011
NZ ready for date with destiny
Richie McCaw (Gallo Images)
Auckland - The All Blacks looked calm and relaxed at training on Saturday in their final appearance in front of the cameras before they have their chance to claim a place in New Zealand rugby history.
Mere mortals as they conducted their final Captain's Run of the World Cup, they have been left in no doubt that victory in Sunday's final against France will elevate them to a place in the pantheon of New Zealand sporting greats.
Under the headline "Those Who Went Before", the New Zealand Herald on Saturday published the names of the 192 players who have played in the famous black shirt but failed to win the Webb Ellis Cup since the country's single 1987 triumph.
"Today's team have the chance to set history's ledger right," read the wording on the mock memorial. "Now is the hour to fulfil the dreams of those who went before."
If the players felt the weight of history on their shoulders, they did not show it as they went through light drills at the Trusts Stadium.
Winger Richard Kahui knocked around a soccer ball while flyhalf Aaron Cruden and scrumhalf Piri Weepu practised the place kicks that could prove vital at Eden Park on Sunday night.
The players' wives, girlfriends and children watched on from the stands, applauding occasionally.
Outside, a crowd of some 40 All Blacks devotees had waited patiently for the players to return to the team coach and they were finally rewarded with autographs and photographs.
Captain Richie McCaw and Maori favourite Weepu are always a draw but the squealed demands for the attention of fullback Israel Dagg and former rugby league player Sonny Bill Williams indicated how their stock has risen at this tournament.
"Good luck!" one fan told dreadlocked centre Ma'a Nonu, before correcting himself. "No, you don't need luck."
The capricious nature of the sporting gods was never more evident than when Dan Carter, the repository of much of his nation's hopes of a second World Cup triumph until a groin injury ended his tournament, limped past in flip flops.
There were still requests for pictures and his signature but his red jacket was a clear indication of his separation from his black-clad erstwhile team-mates.
His young replacement at flyhalf Cruden also attracted plenty of attention and, in perhaps the sole indication of jitters among the fans, he alone was treated to a chorus of "good luck" as he jumped on to the team coach.
If the squad have worked hard to avoid any suggestion of complacency this week, not so the fans.
"We've got it," said Angela Tomlinson, a local resident who had been busy taking pictures of her three teenage daughters and their heroes.
"I'm a pessimist but they've got it mentally and physically, I can't see them being beaten. They've got what the Maoris call 'kia kaha', they're strong."
Even a reminder that the French have upset the All Blacks at two previous World Cups would not alter her confidence, although she did concede that defeat would "ruin the nation".
"You don't want to be around New Zealand if we lose," she said. "But that's not going to happen."
The All Blacks gather for a team photo with friends and family following their Captain's Run at Trusts Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand. (Getty Images)