If France can only edge past a 14 man strong Welsh side by a point, can they really expect to beat New Zealand in ‘their’ World Cup on their patch? Honestly, it seems like a seriously long shot after their comparative performances in the semi-finals this weekend, but when the heat is on New Zealand have been known to choke.
History would suggest that France have been a thorn in the side of New Zealand’s World Cup chances, but this weekend has highlighted a greater mental strength about this All Black’s side. Their performance against Australia on Sunday was based upon mental toughness and a defensive quality greater than we have seen in a long time from a New Zealand side on the World’s biggest stage.
Usually the All Black’s are praised for their forward thinking rugby full to capacity with free flowing back’s moves and invention. Sunday though was all about the forwards’ ferocious appetite at the break down and the composure demonstrated by the backs to control the tempo of the play. The strength and consistency of the platform provided by the forwards allowed the backs to play simple efficient territorial rugby, pinning back the Australian’s and ruffling the feathers of their mercurial fly half Quade Cooper.
Richie McCaw in spite of his fitness worries led by example and was visibly proud in his post-match interviews. He knew more than anyone that his side had shown a lesser known side of themselves, a side which will have struck more fear into any side than that caused by their more renowned attacking genius. Not often have the All Black’s played with such nerve and cohesion in a World Cup match and Graham Henry too will be thoroughly proud of his charges.
In comparison to New Zealand’s clinical dismissal of the Wallabies, France’s lack of conviction against Wales’ fourteen men was alarming. Though they managed to initially assert their numerical advantage, the lack of spark, control and attacking threat from the French in the second half was far from worthy of a place in the final. However, by hook or by crook they are there and they will seek to upset the form book by once again inflicting a defeat upon the overwhelming favourites. If their big players such as Imanol Harinordoquy get their firm grasps upon the game as they did in the first hour against England then they do indeed have a slim chance of winning the competition for the first time and could prevent New Zealand’s official return to the peak of World rugby.
On paper there seems to be little contest though. Not only are New Zealand on home turf, not only did they beat the French with ease in the group stage, but they are almost without question the stronger side both player for player and as a cohesive unit. To put it in perspective, I would find it hard to name a handful of players in the French side worthy of a place in New Zealand’s line-up. The likes of Harinordoquy and Lionel Nallet would have a chance of a place in the All Black’s pack, and maybe you could argue that Dimitri Yaschvili and Morgan Parra (both as 9’s) would push Piri Weepu for his place along with Vincent Clerc or Maxime Medard on a wing but that’s about it.
In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the lingering doubt over New Zealand’s history of fragility under World Cup pressure remains like the unreachable itch on the spine and will do unless they are standing tall as champions of the World this time next week. The question on everyone’s lips is ‘Can the All Blacks bring to an end 24 years of hurt?’ And the answer is ‘Probably’, but maybe, just maybe, the French spark can bring the Kiwi’s to their knees yet again.