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Cup-bound All Blacks at home in France

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NZPA     10 Nov 2006     allblacks.com gallery

The 1999 group flew from Britain for a couple of days late in that tournament, seeking a reprieve from the intensity of the task at hand.

When John Hart's men fell in the semifinal against France not long afterwards some critics pointed to the sojourn south for an explanation.

The players' minds were on holiday, they said.

Graham Henry's All Blacks clearly aren't worried about what effect the waters of the Mediterranean and the renowned weather in this popular part of France will have on them.

Otherwise they wouldn't have made the French southern region of Provence their base for the first month of next year's World Cup.

The thriving port city of Marseille will host New Zealand for the opening fortnight.

They will arrive more than a week before for their first pool match against Italy at the city's famous Stade Velodrome on September 8.

And they will remain until soon before their second match, against a yet-to-be-decided opponent in Lyon on September 15.

For a change of scene, the team will then shift camp about 30 minutes drive inland to the much smaller student town of Aix-en-Provence, where they will prepare for their remaining pool matches -- against Scotland in Edinburgh on September 23 and Romania in Toulouse six days later.

The All Blacks' fate is in their hands from that point but, assuming they are unbeaten, a quarterfinal looms in Cardiff, followed by a semifinal and final in Paris -- the latter on October 20.

Rather than referring to the 1999 tournament in planning their logistics, the All Blacks have learned more specifically from the shortcomings of the 2003 campaign in Australia when coach John Mitchell kept his team largely behind closed doors in the non-rugby environment of Melbourne for seven weeks.

"The feedback we got from '03 was that one place for too long was too much," All Blacks' manager Darren Shand said.

"We were conscious that we needed to alter that.

"We're quite lucky with the draw next year in that it gives us a bit of a break here and there.

"Going up to Scotland for three or four days in the middle of the tournament takes us out of France and potentially the quarterfinal in Cardiff.

"Otherwise, if we were to go the whole way, that's 53 days in France and that's a long time."

It's all about making the experience a stimulating one for the players so, starting on this tour, they are being asked to become French.

That means learning some of the language, enjoying the cuisine and soaking up as much of another culture as possible.

Why? So when they return here in less than 10 months the players will be relaxed and quickly into stride.

It is a method welcomed by flanker Jerry Collins, who remembers how limiting the Melbourne experience was in 2003.

"Regardless of the result at the end of the day, you actually want to enjoy the experience.

"The last thing you want to do is sit in a cardboard box in the middle of nowhere and then come out," Collins says.

"It doesn't go to plan and then you don't enjoy the experience.

"It's a life experience as well as a rugby experience, which is probably the right way to go."

Marseille has rolled out the red carpet for the All Blacks this week, following a year of jaw-dropping preparation and effort.

The local council has poured euro6.7 million ($NZ13.04 million) into developing the Stade Jean Bouin facility for the New Zealanders to use as their training base -- just five minutes from their waterfront hotel.

Previously in a dilapidated state, the private ground will boast a gym and indoor facility, as well as the necessary security measures.

Shand says given the support Marseille has already shown, the All Blacks were obliged to spend this week's buildup here for the Sunday morning (NZT) test against France in Lyon.

There is not the time on this tour to also sample the accommodation, travel and facilities at Aix-en-Provence but Shand felt comfortable with what had been arranged there.

"That was a place we identified really early on. We just thought in terms of immersing ourselves in French environment, Aix-en-Provence was really French," he said.

"The village and the cafes are close. It's a young vibrant place."

Like most of the French cities and towns Shand scouted, there is a first-rate sports facility available. It features 50 rooms, which the All Blacks will take over for about two weeks.

The 2003 All Blacks kept Melbourne as a base to the bitter end.

It was a world away from the tournament's heartbeat of Sydney, where they ultimately met their demise in the semifinal against Australia.

Shand said if they get as far as the semifinals and final next year, they will spend all their buildup in the French capital.

"We want to be where the action is."

It has not yet been confirmed how the All Blacks will use the five-week period between the end of next year's Tri-Nations and their departure for France but it is certain they won't repeat the month-long training roadshow that Mitchell's men embarked on, encompassing several New Zealand towns and cities.

"We're conscious we're going to be away for 53 days. We don't want to load the guys up again," Shand says.

"We'll get together a couple of times through that period before we arrive in France but it certainly won't be to the degree they did in '03."

Months of logistical fine-tuning lie ahead for Shand, working alongside a bilingual pair -- the New Zealand Rugby Union's World Cup project manager Stephen Cottrell and Bridget Gee, a staff member from the New Zealand Embassy in Paris.

For now, things are running "French-smooth", Shand said.

"In France things operate differently to what we're used to. Getting back into that environment's interesting and challenging but it's good too. You either swim with the tide or you fight it.

"We've found if you fight it, there's no point.

"You certainly know from their side that there's no want of trying. They throw a lot of resources at you in terms of police and those sorts of things.

"It's way more than what we're accustomed to.

"There are a lot of people who like to be around and involved."

In five planning visits to France, Shand has learned the importance of patient communication and developing the mindset of a Frenchman. Relationships that can be bonded now will hopefully pay off in the best way.

"Strategically, we want to win the hearts and the minds of the French," he said.

"Who knows where we'll be on October the 20th, but I think if we've got that level of support from the people here then that can only be a good thing."