All Blacks vs Les Bleus: Bruising Encounters III

Quarter of a century of Kiwi angst should come to an end around midnight at Eden Park on Sunday, but what if it doesn’t? New Zealand’s credit rating has just suffered a double downgrade and defeat to France in the World Cup final, coupled with a dreadful oil spill on the east coast, might just finish the country off.

Former England captain Will Carling is convinced the French have been fooling us all along with the dysfunctional relationship between coach Marc Lievremont and his players no more than play-acting. He said: “I don’t think it’s a master plan and I do think he did have a few issues with the players. But I think they’ve actually thought: Let’s play on this—use it as a bit of a smokescreen.”

There’s also acknowledgement within the French camp of the contrary nature endemic to the national side.
Prop forward Fabien Barcella said: “It’s crazy—we’re the only team in the history of rugby to lose two pool matches and reach the final. We’re a team that cultivates contrasts.”

To which the response might be: You can say that again. In the overall scheme of things a French win on Sunday would represent the biggest World Cup upset since — since — well, since the last few times they beat the All Blacks. In 2007 it was a quarterfinal with a capricious referee that resulted in a 20-18 win for France. In 1999 it was the greatest 40 minutes of rugby played by any team in the history of the competition and no one questioned the final score of 43-31.

The question is whether this team has the talent and big-match temperament to emulate the deeds of their predecessors. Professionalism has changed the game fundamentally in France and their renowned flair is in far shorter supply than it used to be.

There is also the small matter of the result when the same two sides met in pool play a month ago, a one-sided 37-17 win for New Zealand. You only have to go back to the previous tournament for an example of finalists reconvening after meeting in pool play. South Africa destroyed England 36-0 and then 15-6 in the final.

Mr Fixit
Logic demands that something similar must occur this time, with the suffocating atmosphere of the most important match of all likely to keep the scoreline closer than at other times. And yet — and yet.

Watching the All Blacks on home turf has been extremely instructive. Their adoring rugby public revels in the aftermath of victory, yet expects the worst before every major contest. Everywhere you go in New Zealand, you see messages of support etched into the landscape but few genuinely believed before the tournament that the class of 2011 could match that of 1987.

For one thing, there is a dearth of world-class players, although that is a criticism that might be applied across the board at this tournament. Piri Weepu has ended up being Graham Henry’s Mr Fixit, despite being short of the class to play either scrumhalf, flyhalf or specialist goal-kicker at the highest level.

To put it into perspective, Henry could not find a place in his squad for Weepu in 2007 and the nuggety halfback nearly changed codes as a result. Four years later he is a key member of the run-on team. But Weepu has not become a better rugby player; it is simply that Henry’s options have got worse.

This is not to denigrate the All Blacks, who continue to champion the running game with evangelical fervour. What other nation could lose its top three flyhalves in the course of a competition and yet still have a player as good as Aaron Cruden to call on?

French confidence
The 22-year-old Cruden was skateboarding at home and looking forward to a trip to Disneyland when the call came through that his country needed him for the knockout stages. He has played as though to the manor born and looks the natural successor to Dan Carter, as Carter in his time and at a similar age looked the natural successor to Andrew Mehrtens.

But the New Zealand public remains sceptical. Too small, they say. What if Thierry Dusautoir gets to Cruden early? That would mean either shifting Weepu out one position or, perish the thought, bringing on Stephen Donald, a player reviled for a string of poor performances in the black jersey.

There is enough paranoia here to grow French confidence and all Les Bleus really need is something to get their tails up. It seems an unlikely scenario but the real contest is between the flair of New Zealand and the grinding ability of the French. Their scrum may have disintegrated against the All Blacks in pool play but it would be foolish to expect that to happen again.

They were horribly one-dimensional against the 14 men of Wales in the semifinals and yet they won. With forwards of the quality of Imanol Harinordoquy and Lionel Nallet, only a fool would dare write France off.

In 1987 and 1999 they peaked in the semifinals with a pair of performances for the ages. This time around, their peak may arrive at the very moment when the host nation can least tolerate it.

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