AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Just before the halfway mark of the Rugby World Cup, defending champions South Africa have all but clinched a quarterfinal spot. And as a big weekend approached involving several key matchups, there was continuing debate Thursday over France's supposed weakened team to play New Zealand.
To add spice to the proceedings, a member of royalty — Queen's Elizabeth's granddaughter Zara Phillips — arrived to check on her husband's controversial first road trip since their late July wedding.
The new groom is England inside center Mike Tindall, who made headlines nearly two weeks ago after being caught on a video camera getting his bald head kissed by another woman.
The Springboks had an easy time beating their regional neighbors Namibia 87-0 at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland, their third win in three matches and giving them an eight-point lead over second-place Samoa. In the first half, winger Bryan Habana became the most prolific test try-scorer in South African rugby history, crossing for his 39th try in 72 matches.
The total eclipsed former scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen, who scored 38 tries in 89 tests before retiring from international rugby in 2003.
"To pass someone like Joost van der Westhuizen, who gave so much to South African rugby, is a real honor and a privilege," Habana said.
Four teams made squad selection announcments Thursday — Scotland for its must-win match Sunday against Pool B foe Argentina, New Zealand for its game against a supposedly weak France at Auckland on Saturday, and Romania and England for their match at Dunedin, also Saturday.
Tindall is back in the starting lineup for England, and chances are Phillips will be in the stands when he runs onto the field. Phillips, who married Tindall in a private ceremony at Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 30, arrived in Auckland on Wednesday for a charity function.
Tindall was caught on a hotel's security camera talking to a woman. He briefly held her hand and she kissed him on the top of his head. It will be the first face-to-face meeting of Tindall and Phillips, who have been apart three weeks, since the episode.
The 32-year-old Tindall was rested from last week's win over Georgia. Tindall faced the media for the first time Thursday, with manager Martin Johnson on his flank, which was just as well — he deflected any questions about the bar incident.
"We've played since then ... we've put it to bed," Johnson said, refusing to allow Tindall to reply to anything but match queries.
Captain Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, both back after injuries, and fullback Israel Dagg and scrumhalf Piri Weepu were the only four players different to the All Blacks side which beat Japan 83-7 last Friday.
Asked if this was his No. 1 team, coach Graham Henry said, "For this particular opposition, I think it's the best team."
France coach Marc Lievremont has had to defend accusations that his side is not. If France loses to New Zealand, it could possibly finish in second place and likely in the draw's favorable side.
Morgan Parra was selected as flyhalf despite never having started in that position before, while Lievremont has been criticized for leaving his best forward, hooker William Servat, on the bench.
Alastair Kellock, confirmed as Scotland captain before the tournament, was left out of the team for the second straight match, one the Scots will have to win against Argentina in order to have any chance of making the quarterfinals for the seventh straight World Cup.
Scrumhalf Rory Lawson will again lead Scotland. Lawson is unbeaten in four matches as Scotland's captain, leading the team to a 15-6 win over Georgia in its previous Pool B match.
Kellock, who captained Scotland to a 2-0 series win over Argentina last year, couldn't make the 22-player squad for the match against the Pumas, who beat Romania 43-8 in its last match.
"To be fair to Al, as always he has taken it very well, he's an outstanding character," Robinson said. "For us going into this game, we have to be able to play with ball in hand but we also have to be able to move Argentina around. It's important that we don't just get into a kicking game."
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on World Cup organizers to relax a ban on musical instruments at venues which has prevented bagpipes from being played at Scotland's matches. Scotland Sports Minister Shona Robinson has written to organizers asking for bagpipes to be removed from the list of banned items.
Opposition lawmakers in New Zealand are also pressing for a rule change, saying the ban makes Kiwis look like "kiltjoys."
- Mike Tindall
- Zara Phillips
- New Zealand
- New Zealand