For two sides who have the best record at reaching the last four at World Cups - each has made it six times in seven attempts – New Zealand and France have well-documented and recurring trouble trying to actually win the thing. New Zealand has waited 24 years for success, France a few weeks longer; on Sunday evening one of those droughts will finally be broken.
DATE: Sunday October 23, 2011
KICK-OFF: 2100 NZST (1900 AEST)
VENUE: Eden Park, Auckland
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Played 50: New Zealand 37, France 12, drawn 1.
HEAD-TO-HEAD IN WORLD CUPS: Played 5: New Zealand 3, France 2
LAST TIME: September 24, 2011 (Auckland, RWC): New Zealand 37-17 France
New Zealand named almost the same team that prevailed over Australia with the only change being the loose forward replacement, where Adam Thomson has been selected ahead of Victor Vito. The other 21 men in the squad wear the same numbers as they did a week ago.
France was out of the gate early with its team announcement; on Tuesday Marc Lievremont told the world his run-on XV would be the same one that has done duty in both knock-out matches so far. He was less sure about the reserves, delaying the bench announcement until Friday evening; in the end there were three changes among the seven players named.
Beat Tonga 41-10
Beat Japan 83-7
Beat France 37-17
Beat Canada 79-15
First in Pool A
Beat Argentina 33-10 (qf)
Beat Australia 20-6 (sf)
Beat Japan 47-21
Beat Canada 46-19
Lost to New Zealand 17-37
Lost to Tonga 14-19
Second in Pool A
Beat England 19-12 (qf)
Beat Wales 9-8 (sf)
After early splutters, the New Zealand engine purred into life and the All Blacks have moved steadily towards the final. A comfortable win over Argentina in the quarters was followed by a much tougher one over Australia in the semi, but the 14-point margin was still convincing. So was the All Blacks’ play; after Australia made a mistake from the opening kickoff New Zealand poured on the pressure and didn’t leave Australian territory until it had five points on the board. After that the score went up in instalments of three, but it did so regularly and Australia never really threatened to win the match. That display, if nothing else, means the hosts go into this match as deserved favourites.
France has hardly been convincing en route to its third final and is the only team ever to get to the showpiece match after losing two in its pool. Wales should have won the semi but Sam Warburton and Welsh confidence left Eden Park simultaneously, and France spent the next 40 minutes dealing efficiently, if unspectacularly, with a team that presented few challenges. Morgan Parra kicked his goals, Wales didn’t, and the clock ran out before Wales could find the one score it needed. France has still made it to the final when 18 others have failed, but many around the world are wondering how it all happened; winning, however, is the only thing that matters and France has won the two games that really matter so far.
WHO'S HOT/PLAYER TO WATCH:
Rather than being decided by any individual, this match will be won by the teams within the team. And, in the tournament of the loose forward, these sides can each field a dynamic trio whose cohesiveness may be the key to the whole thing.
New Zealand has its preferred starting trio back together, after Kieran Read recovered from an ankle injury suffered at Brisbane and Richie McCaw won his battles with his troublesome foot. In their absence Jerome Kaino has been huge and, barring a massive upheaval, will collect the Player of the Tournament award on Monday night. Individually these three are among the most significant New Zealand players; as a unit, hardened by many Test matches of the toughest kind, they have grown into a combination worthy to stand alongside any of the great ones New Zealand has produced.
France’s loose forwards are of a very similar stamp. Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy are experienced players at the highest level and very fine individual performers. Together they make up by far the most impressive part of the French team and it has been noticeable that when any one of this trio has been missing the team has looked out of sorts. If they have one advantage over the New Zealanders it may be in the lineout, but generally one has to score them pretty even – and that means the French loosies are right at the peak of the game.
That’s the battle to watch, and what you don’t see will be as important as what you do. Whichever loose trio is more dominant after ten minutes will be on the side that’s getting on top. Short of another drama like last Saturday’s, they will still be on the side that’s on top after 80 minutes.
Graham Henry knows that any fine tuning he has to do will be done long before the team runs out to play on Sunday night. “Sunday night before they run out on the field is their time, it has to be their time,” he said. “They’ve got to get their own minds right and settled and on the job. People talking to them at that time is an absolute waste of time, in fact it’s a distraction.” One feels there won’t be too many distractions come Sunday night, and Henry will have to go and endure 80 nervous minutes in the coach’s box as his charges follow the plans set out during the week.
Perhaps French wing Vincent Clerc’s comment about how his side will deal with the All Blacks lost something in translation. He said: "They have weaknesses as well and we just have to make sure we don't do any old thing. It will be a huge, huge rugby match. We will have to put the heat on them and we will have to be extremely defensive in the way we were against the Welsh." One hopes he meant they will have to defend as well as they did against Wales, because if they are as defensive as they were in that match they will get buried by a side that is not scared to attack.
Yeah, yeah, everyone knows you write the French off at your peril in World Cups but if Les Bleus have what is needed to break New Zealand’s 17-year winning run at Eden Park, they’ve hidden it well for quite some time. France is being talked up to an almost amazing degree, but has only played 40 minutes of top-class rugby at the whole tournament. The All Blacks have played a lot more than that, including 80 last week, and any betting agency not spotting New Zealand a 15-point margin might be in for a bad day.
New Zealand: 1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Keven Mealamu, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Sam Whitelock, 5. Brad Thorn, 6. Jerome Kaino, 7. Richie McCaw (capt), 8. Kieran Read, 9. Piri Weepu, 10. Aaron Cruden, 11. Richard Kahui, 12. Ma’a Nonu, 13. Conrad Smith, 14. Cory Jane, 15. Israel Dagg.
Reserves: 16. Andrew Hore, 17. Ben Franks, 18. Ali Williams, 19. Adam Thomson, 20. Andy Ellis, 21. Stephen Donald, 22. Sonny Bill Williams.
France: 1. Jean-Baptiste Poux, 2. William Servat, 3. Nicolas Mas, 4. Pascal Pape, 5. Lionel Nallet, 6. Thierry Dusautoir (capt), 7. Julien Bonnaire, 8. Imanol Harinordoquy, 9. Dimitri Yachvili, 10. Morgan Parra, 11. Alexis Palisson, 12. Maxime Mermoz, 13. Aurelien Rougerie, 14. Vincent Clerc, 15. Maxime Medard.
Reserves: 16. Dimitri Szarzewski, 17. Fabien Barcella, 18. Julien Pierre, 19. Fulgence Ouedraogo, 20. Jean-Marc Doussain, 21. Francois Trinh-Duc, 22. Damien Traille.
REFEREE: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
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