History beckons the All Blacks
October 20, 2011
All Blacks centre Ma'a Nonu slides in to score the only try of their semi-final win over Australia © Getty Images
New Zealand open the door to fate on Sunday night in Auckland, where France are out to spoil the hosts' party in the Rugby World Cup Final.
It's 24 years since David Kirk's men won the inaugural showpiece - also at Eden Park and also against Les Bleus - and the intervening tournaments have not been kind to the All Blacks.
Dumped out by Australia in 1991 and 2003 and undone by South Africa in 1995, the World Cup defeats that hurt most both came against France. In 1999 it was a miracle of French flair and four years ago Bernard Laporte's side pulled through thanks to sheer bloody-mindedness and a missed forward pass.
The 'choke' has been a constant fear for All Black fans but their passage to the Final has been serene compared to their opponents, who were this week branded 'a bunch of spoiled brats. Undisciplined, disobedient, sometimes selfish' by their coach following an unauthorised drinking session.
Last weekend's semi-final win over a 14-man Wales won them few friends and offered precious little hope of an upset against a home team brimming with confidence following a comfortable win over fierce rivals Australia. The Pool stage meeting between the sides ended in a lopsided 37-17 win for New Zealand. It would take something special to reverse that trend - do France have the spirit of their predecessors?
New Zealand - Player to Watch: Just days after being nominated for the coveted IRB Player of the Year award, blindside Jerome Kaino has the chance to claim the sport's ultimate prize. One of, if not the, players of the tournament so far, he faces a stern test against a French back-row that has been gritty and determined despite the chaos around them.
New Zealand - Team News: Henry has opted to retain the side that saw off the Wallabies last weekend, with Richie McCaw again leading the All Blacks. He is joined in the back-row by Kaino and Kieran Read and the trio are set for a record 21st Test together. Keven Mealamu wins his 92nd cap, drawing him level with the legendary Sean Fitzpatrick as the All Blacks' most-capped hooker.
France - Player to Watch: As with his opposite number, Piri Weepu, Dimitri Yachvili will accept a large part of the playmaking burden for his side. Judging by their performances to date France will opt to keep the game tight and use their pack for momentum, with Yachvili one of the world's finest when tasked with organising a forward effort.
France - Team News: Lievremont has also kept faith with his semi-final winning team. Thierry Dusautoir - another Player of the Year nominee - skippers the French while Yachvili is paired with Morgan Parra at halfback. Jean-Baptiste Poux and Nicolas Mas are the props, while Lionel Nallet has a big job on his hands to disrupt the All Blacks' lineout as he did Wales'.
Key Battle: As with so many games at this tournament, this one will hinge on a massive back-row battle. McCaw swept aside the challenge of David Pocock last time out and will hope to do the same to the quiet man of the French side, Julien Bonnaire - a genuine standout so far. Read and Kaino also face opposite numbers - Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy - who are among the game's elite loose forwards. It's going to be mesmerising.
Stats: France wing Vincent Clerc is currently tied with England's Chris Ashton as the tournament's top try-scorer - on six - while All Black fullback Israel Dagg has five.
Trivia: Aaron Cruden - despite his relative inexperience - has more Test caps than previous All Black fly-halves in World Cup Finals. In 1987, Grant Fox was playing his seventh Test and in 1995 Andrew Mehrtens won cap number six.
"I've never seen the country like this in my life. I was there in 1995 when we had the America's Cup, and that was pretty phenomenal, but this is another world. I haven't had to pay for one breakfast at my local cafe yet, which is pretty brilliant." - All Blacks lock Ali Williams praises the home support and his local cafe.
"We thought after England that we would have a bit more support but following the match against Wales it was still us against the world." - France fly-half Morgan Parra on their siege mentality.
Prediction: Don't expect the blowout we saw in the group stages, but the All Blacks should have far too much in reserve for a French side that has freewheeled between the mediocre and ridiculous.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Proposals to remove promotion and relegation from the Aviva Premiership would be for the good of the game overall, argues John Taylor
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery