New Zealand fears France in Rugby World Cup final
Updated: October 21, 2011, 01:44
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) By every means of comparison bar one, New Zealand should beat France in Sunday's World Cup final to end the 24-year wait of a rugby-mad nation for its second world title.
The All Blacks have been the outstanding team of the tournament, winning their pool matches by margins of between 20 and 76 points, scoring 240 points and conceding 49 in four games, then beating Argentina and Australia in knockout matches with barely a flicker of anxiety on the field.
France lost twice in pool matches, to New Zealand and in almost humiliating fashion to Tonga, then compounded its poor form with a self-destructive display of internal discord.
The All Blacks sustained a key injury during pool play - the loss of star flyhalf Dan Carter - that was thought capable of derailing their campaign, but took it in their stride.
As reigning world champion South Africa and 2003 champions England fell in the quarterfinals along with Ireland, which had beaten Australia in pool play, New Zealand steered an unbroken course to the final. In the nature of All Blacks rugby it drew on almost prodigious depth of talent: elevating 22-year-old flyhalf Aaron Cruden and scrumhalf Piri Weepu from subordinate to indispensable roles without any disruption to its pattern.
New Zealand met its archrival Australia in the semifinals and, for a moment, this nation of 4.5 million quavered; feared that in a match between the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in world rugby its long quest for World Cup glory might unravel.
Instead, New Zealand played majestically, physically imposing itself on the match, shutting down Australia's key playmakers to win 20-6 and to become, even more than it had been previously, an overwhelming favorite to win the final.
Every aspect of the teams' respective passages to the Sunday's championship match seemed to lead to one conclusion: that New Zealand will beat France on Sunday to claim the World Cup for the first time since 1987. An Irish gambling house, so confident of the outcome, reportedly paid out on a New Zealand win before the match was played.
New Zealanders would be equally sanguine if it was not for one issue that confounds comparisons between the teams: the unpredictable French. France has twice beaten New Zealand in World Cup knockout matches, most recently in 2007 when they eliminated the All Blacks in the quarterfinals.
That defeat shocked New Zealanders, implanting in the national psyche a fear that a second World Cup victory might always elude the All Blacks. Coaches Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen retained their jobs in the face of stiff public opposition and now have the chance four years later to make their peace with fans by delivering the World Cup.
"It's a very exciting situation that we're in, a final against France, our arch-nemesis at World Cup time,'' Carter said. "We all know about the past that we've had with the French.
"They're such a dangerous side, especially when their backs are against the wall and they have a lot of doubters. That's when they step up and they've shown that in 2007 and also in 1999. We have to expect the unexpected.
"At World Cups, teams come out and have heroic performances ... like 2007 and the way the French played. It's going to be a huge challenge.''
As a measure of how much the match means to New Zealanders, a recent survey by a respected polling agency asked if respondents were more concerned about the outcome of the Rugby World Cup or a Nov. 26 election which will decide who governs the country for the next three years. Almost one-third of those surveyed said they were more concerned about the World Cup.
In a poll conducted by the New Zealand Herald newspaper only seven percent of All Blacks fans said they thought the World Cup was as good as won; 17 percent said they feared a great French performance.
"You know, I always expect the best of the All Blacks,'' France coach Marc Lievremont said. "They were exceptional in the semifinal against Australia, aggressive, dominating and they were playing their best rugby.
"I'm not sure it helps us at all that they are such favorites. We are in the final match and every time we play them it is the same thing. They are always the favorites and all I can say is that I believe in my team and I believe they can win.''
Winger Vincent Clerc summarized the attitude of the French players, who have drawn motivation from the fact their World Cup prospects have been so brutally dismissed.
"Nothing is written yet ... they're not world champions,'' he said. "I don't feel like a future loser, or someone who has no chance of winning.
"We're still in the final, and despite how we've played so far, it's Sunday that counts. We've said for a while now that we came here to be world champions. Maybe it hasn't been a dream run, but we're going there to win.''
The All Blacks say they have a balance in their squad between veterans of the 2007 defeat and youngsters such as Cruden and fullback Israel Dagg who are unscarred by that experience.
"You're playing in a World Cup final now and I guess you just want to go out there and turn that pressure and all that anxiety into excitement and anger - good anger - out onto the field,'' Dagg said.
Center Ma'a Nonu says the veterans are eager to make amends for past failures.
"This is the biggest occasion every four years for rugby and we've always fallen short in the semifinals or quarterfinals,'' he said. "We're always trying to find answers for why we've fallen over.
"People say we always peak too early. This is probably our best chance and we want to take it.''