The wait is almost over
October 21, 2011
Can Richie McCaw lead the All Blacks to long-awaited Rugby World Cup glory against France on Sunday night? © Getty Images
"Yes We Will" screams a giant billboard along the Fan Trail that leads supporters from the heart of Auckland city centre to Eden Park where the 2011 Rugby World Cup will climax on Sunday night.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a desperate bid to reassure a nation whose nerves have been shredded by a 24-year World Cup drought and endless heartache in the sport's showpiece event. But no, this is an emphatic proclamation from the heart of a rugby-mad population that is convinced their time has finally come.
But it is not the only sign of a growing confidence that the hosts are about to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. In a world increasingly propelled by sound bites of 140 characters or less, T-shirts offer further fuel to the fire with one, drawing heavily on a famous Second World War poster, highlighting the steadying presence of the All Blacks' first-choice scrum-half. 'Keep Calm, Piri's On' it declares in tribute the admirable way Weepu has helped fill the void left by an injury to playmaker Dan Carter. Another mimics the logo used by Australian rockers AC/DC in singing the praises of stand-in stand-off Aaron Cruden and his ability to step into Carter's shoes.
The source of this belief is a side that has been a class apart in the two months leading to the tournament finale. The International Rugby Board's No.1 ranked side for the last two years have chosen the perfect time to reinforce what we have known for some time - the All Blacks are the world's best side. No side has been able to match the physicality, the invention and perhaps more importantly the intensity brandished by New Zealand. An unrivalled and multi-faceted game is only part of the winning formula with an astounding consistency in terms of the level of their performance the trump card against those sides who have flirted with opposition.
And let us not forget their march to a first final since the 1995 tournament in South Africa has come at some cost. Carter was just the first of two fly-halves to see their World Cup dreams ended by injury with Colin Slade soon joining him on the sidelines. Cruden's ascent to the most important role in New Zealand rugby was unexpected but you would not know it from the ease at which he has taken on the mantle. He will hope to steer his side to a famous triumph in what will be just his ninth Test appearance and perhaps a little alarmingly only his third start. New Zealanders have been here before with varying results - Grant Fox guided the All Blacks to World Cup glory in 1987 in his seventh Test outing while Andrew Mehrtens made his sixth international appearance in the 1995 final reverse to South Africa.
Luckily for Cruden and those concerned by such stats, the current crop of All Blacks are far from a one-man band. The ability to absorb the loss of Carter, widely considered the best player in the world, and hardly break stride speaks volumes of the talent at boss Graham Henry's disposal and the coaching and people management prowess of his support staff. Outstanding service honours are due throughout the squad but perhaps none are as deserving as flanker Jerome Kaino.
His power-packed game, perhaps best illustrated by his man-handling of Wallabies winger Digby Ioane as he closed in on the line during their semi-final clash last weekend, has formed the bedrock of the All Blacks' campaign. Kaino is one of only four players, alongside France's Vincent Clerc and Australia's Quade Cooper and Adam Ashley-Cooper, to have played every minute of their team's six matches. His outstanding endurance has enabled the All Blacks to weather an injury to another pivotal figure in No.8 Kieran Read who missed the first three games of the campaign. Kaino has also stepped up as an injury cloud hovered over fellow flanker Richie McCaw. The All Blacks' captain has also been a bit-part player as he struggled with a foot injury leaving Kaino as the only ever-present in a back-row that had been expected to be the driving force behind the All Blacks' quest for glory.
But that is in no way meant to devalue McCaw's contribution to this side. The talismanic skipper has led from the front when his body has allowed and was at his game-changing best against the Wallabies but his work off the field and behind the scenes, galvanising a side that had lost key personnel and reaffirming their belief, has been just as valuable. That unseen effort may prove to be just as memorable as any image of McCaw with his hands clasped round the trophy.
But grit and determination will only get you so far - step forward an equally hungry back division. The likes of centre Ma'a Nonu, wingers Cory Jane and Richard Kahui and fullback Israel Dagg have been sensational at times and may well hog the headlines should the All Blacks crank through the gears in a similar vein on Sunday night in front of another expectant capacity crowd.
The odds would appear stacked against France. They may have flirted with the kind of all-action game that will be required to rock the All Blacks' foundations but nothing more than that. It will take an 80-minute performance packed with brute force and free-flowing rugby to derail New Zealand and the French came up some way short on that front in their pool clash that was won at a canter by the All Blacks.
France are not short of talent and within that they have several potential match-winners and if any side is likely to conjure the kind of magic demanded of the occasion it is the French. But such a stunning upset would be reliant on France uniting when endless reports suggest the squad is anything but. The recent criticism from their own press and the international media's willingness to write off their chances will no doubt inspire a lift of sorts but they have are starting so far adrift that an equally startling collapse from the All Blacks for them to find parity and you just can't see that happening.
As much as history and the passion of fans may suggest otherwise, emotion will play little part in this contest as far as the All Blacks are concerned, they are a rugby machine. But not only are they a superior physical force, they have embraced their past failures and now boast unprecedented mental strength. They will have prepared for every eventuality, such is France's trademark unpredictability, but they should also ready themselves for glory. The wait is almost over.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.