Can New Zealand keep a lid on it?
October 18, 2011
New Zealand head coach Graham Henry raises a smile in the aftermath of his side's Rugby World Cup semi-final victory over Australia © Getty Images
"It's very important we come down," warned All Blacks coach Graham Henry in the wake of his side's epic Rugby World Cup semi-final victory over Australia. The final four clash between the world's top two ranked sides was billed by many as the tournament finale and such was the subsequent jubilation and relief, you could forgiven for thinking that the Webb Ellis Cup was their reward - but no.
New Zealand are well aware that the job is not yet complete with France, a side with a proud history of inflicting World Cup pain on the All Blacks, standing in between them and the Webb Ellis Cup. But with the Wallabies condemned to the dreaded play-off fixture and with an impressive 37-17 Pool stage victory over the French still fresh in the mind expectation has hit an unprecedented high.
Henry will have no interest in the growing frenzy surrounding his team due to the more pressing task of grounding a side that were clearly elated to send the Wallabies packing. Lock Brad Thorn and flanker Jerome Kaino were among those to show rare flashes of emotion in the closing moments of that victory, feeding off the incredible atmosphere that made for a sensational night at Eden Park. The All Blacks 'machine', that had been clinical in its powerful progress up to that point, now had a human side that endeared it even further to team's passionate supporters.
The joy was also there for all to see in the post-match press conference with Henry and his captain Richie McCaw both beaming having cleared a major hurdle in their quest to end a 24-year World Cup drought. That joy extended to the day after their memorable victory but the game faces will soon return.
In so many ways, Sunday's title-decider will be like any other Test with the All Blacks' preparation set to be detailed as ever. Henry intends to start with "a fresh piece of paper" but as a master tactician surely he will not ignore the significance of the occasion altogether. Any attempts to turn a blind eye to the bigger picture would be futile such is the extent to which rugby is embedded into the nation's psyche. Those players that haven't been scarred by previous World Cup defeats at first hand will have felt the pain of their future team-mates as they watched on like the rest of the rugby-mad nation. No one will require a history lesson to put this game into context.
Henry will no doubt target a balance between the chance to do something incredibly special for the country while demanding his side raise the bar once again on the field. They have embraced their high-profile failures in preparation for the tournament and rest assured that they, and the media, will re-visit the record books in the build-up to this era-defining showdown. And if Henry requires someone to help focus his players he need not look too far.
McCaw, the driving force behind this team for a decade, is one of only two players in the current squad, along with lock Ali Williams, to have suffered World Cup heartache against the Wallabies at the semi-final stage at 2003 and at the hands of France in the quarter-finals four years later. The talismanic skipper maybe on the sidelines for much of the week, with his foot injury limiting his ability to train, but in every other way he will be central to central to proceedings. His focus will simply be on beating France and he will demand the same from his players. Confidence may not be in short supply due to the way they exorcised some demons so emphatically less than a month ago but do not expect any complacency.
But in this day of 24-hour news, internet and social media the All Blacks could be forgiven for being distracted. The team's World Cup campaign has hogged the front pages for much of the last two months; talk radio shows dissects every aspect of their challenge while their latest triumph dominated the major TV news shows despite the on-going environmental crisis in the Bay of Plenty. But there is no escape even if the players choose to ignore the blanket coverage in the media and are not offered up to journalists eager to know how they are handling the pressure.
There is a sign in the lobby of the All Blacks' team hotel that attempts to deter autograph hunters but at times it might as well say 'queue here'. Good-mannered fans linger in the hope of a glimpse of their heroes and maybe a signature or photo and even on the All Blacks' day off on Monday, players such as Sonny Bill Williams were happy to oblige.
That fan fever hints that it may well be the general population that struggles to keep a lid on their excitement in the coming days. Auckland's streets were filled with joyous fans until the early hours of Monday morning, fuelled as much by the All Blacks' dominant display as by their choice of beverage. Half the nation watched the game on TV while record figures were also gambled on the fixture with new highs expected this coming weekend. The 'stadium of four million' marketing slogan heralded by tournament organisers may just become a reality on Sunday night.
That enthusiasm apparently extends to Auckland Council officials who, if reports are correct, are already in negotiation with the New Zealand Rugby Union about a ticker-tape parade down the city's Queen Street next week. All this fuss will be music to France's ears as they quietly go about their business. Unfancied but unconcerned, you sense that they too can't wait for the game and the chance to spoil the party.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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