New Zealand odds on to end 24 years of World Cup pain

By Huw Silk

There have only been four nations that have won the Rugby World Cup – England and the three Tri-Nations sides. That number is highly unlikely to increase on Sunday.

New Zealand, who lifted the Webb Ellis trophy for the only time at the inaugural tournament in 1987, will face France, who have scraped into the final after an unimpressive – yet somehow effective – run of matcheswhich included a loss to the All Blacks in the pool stage.

France triumphed 9-8 over Wales in last weekend’s semi-final in somewhat controversial circumstances. Marc Lievremont’s side profited from the early dismissal of Welsh captain Sam Warburton, but, despite having a numerical advantage for over 60 minutes, would have lost had Wales’ James Hook, Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny not conspired to miss four kicks at goal between them.
Even so, Les Bleus were strong in defence against what had been a free-scoring Welsh side – but they will know that the workload will go up another few notches when facing the All Blacks, who have already touched down for 39 tries in their six matches at the competition.
New Zealand are, without a shadow of a doubt, the strongest side in the world and have not seriously been challenged in the tournament so far. There is almost an embarrassment of riches in the squad, with no real weakness at any position to give opponents a glimmer of an opportunity.
Even the absence of crocked flyhalf Dan Carter – perhaps the quintessential rugby talisman – has not had anything like the negative impact opposition sides have hoped. Third-choice number ten Aaron Cruden, who will start at stand-off for Sunday’s final, looked assured with ball in hand and also kicked intelligently in the semi-final against Australia. He has just eight caps, but that performance against the Wallabies will have calmed the nerves of New Zealanders, many of whom had entered something akin to mourning upon hearing of Carter’s injury.
Outside Cruden, the backline is nothing less than a phenomenal force. The centres – battering ram Ma’a Nonu, the workhorse Conrad Smith – are complemented well by the wingers. Indeed, there is such a depth of talent out wide that coach Graham Henry seems uncertain as to what his first choice wing combination should be. Richard Kahui, Isaia Toeava, Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford and Sonny Bill Williams have all started on the wing in at least one game of this World Cup – though Dagg has become a regular at fullback, a position he will start at for the final.
France do have strength in the backs – Vincent Clerc, the winger, is the joint top-tryscorer at the tournament – but coach Lievremont will persist with the much-debated tactic of playing two scrum halves in the starting fifteen – Dmitri Yachvili at number nine and Morgan Parra at 10. Lievremont fell out with Francois Trinh-Duc, a specialist outside half, and relegated him to the bench.
With Parra at stand-off, New Zealand will attempt to exploit what they perceive to be a weakness in that position. Wales tried exactly that, without luck: minus flanker Sam Warburton, Parra was able to peg them back time and again with intelligent kicking from hand.
However, New Zealand have Richie McCaw, one of the most formidable players of the past decade, who perhaps best personifies the intensity of the All Blacks. In Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy, France themselves do have a decent back row, but, ominously for Les Bleus, McCaw is – still – in the form of his life.
There is little that offers comfort to the French except, perhaps, history. France have traditionally been New Zealand’s World Cup bogey side, knocking the All Blacks out of the 1999 and 2007 tournaments, both times in thrilling fashion. Even that one, tiny, consolation has waned, however. The All Blacks beat Sunday’s opponents in the group stage with almost embarrassing ease, 37-17, and the gap between the sides today is surely greater than either of those two occasions past.
In any case, if history is to be used as a guide, it is worth noting that no team has ever lifted the Webb Ellis trophy after having lost a pool match. France contrived to lose two, including a 17-12 loss to lowly Tonga, arguably one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.
Other than the fact they have – somehow – reached the final, this World Cup has threatened to develop into a farcical one for the French. Lievremont, who will leave his post after the tournament, has employed a bizarre man-management style. As well as his very public fallings-out, most notably with Trinh-Duc, he has criticised his squad, at various times, for being “cowards”, “lacking balls” and as “a bunch of spoiled brats. Undisciplined, disobedient, sometimes selfish”.
Whatever the issues of ethos surrounding the French squad, at least they do not have the psychological hang-ups of their opponents. New Zealand have built up a reputation for choking at World Cups, falling short on every occasion since they won the 1987 tournament – which they also hosted and in which they beat France in the final.
The awesome strength of Graham Henry’s side means there would be very little surprise if they were to repeat that feat of 24 years ago this Sunday.
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