New Zealand prepare for the defining game of their heritage on Sunday night, desperate to appease their forbearers on the biggest stage possible – a World Cup final on home turf – against a French team that were cut apart with ease in pool play. Lambasted in the past twenty years for their failure to build on their inaugural success in 1987, the result of this game will go a long way towards cementing the All Black reputation; either with the deserved tag of the premier team in world rugby or as a team that strangely continues to fail at the toughest hurdle.
Adding to this pressure is a team famous for upsetting New Zealand in the most impossible circumstances. The French have not only knocked their more fancied rivals out of two World Cups but are also the last visiting team to emerge victorious from the fortress that is Eden Park, albeit in 1994, and occupy a haunted position in the mindset of every Kiwi fan. A blinding display of pace, power and accuracy from New Zealand in the semi-final clash with Australia should however ease any fears somewhat of the All Blacks repeating this mistake – a repeat performance will surely be far too much for the troubled French to contain – but sharp thought must be given to the perils of underestimating the perennial World Cup foe.
The New Zealand forward pack remains unchanged from that which annihilated Australia last week; the back row in particular shaking off a worrying injury cloud to emerge with distinction against their trans-Tasman cousins in the all-important breakdown battle. The outstanding form of Jerome Kaino has seen the big blindside flanker steal much of the limelight from the brilliant Canterbury duo of Richie McCaw and Kieran Read; look for a response from the usual stars of the All Blacks pack who both looked to be returning to top form themselves. Elsewhere up front, the ageless Brad Thorn starts what will in all likelihood be the last match of a glittering career alongside his heir apparent, Sam Whitelock; with Ali Williams lurking on the bench, New Zealand’s second row has never looked stronger. The front row too is a menacing prospect even for the French, having put both Australia and a highly-rated Argentinean pack to the sword with ease in their previous two games.
The backs too are unchanged after an impressive all-round semi-final display . Israel Dagg continued his rapid rise to stardom with a series of searing line breaks, one of which provided Ma’a Nonu with the only try of the game due to a mind-boggling offload, while the outside three proved unflappable under the barrage of kicks directed at them by the desperate Australians – especially the brilliant Cory Jane who stole the man of the match award from Dagg by totally nullifying the Wallabies in the air. The experience of Nonu and long-time partner Conrad Smith provides much-needed solidity to the New Zealand midfield, combining watertight defence with variety in attack. Perhaps the only weakened point in a formidable host team comes in the halves; although young Aaron Cruden played remarkably well against Australia while Piri Weepu revels in his newfound role as commander-in-chief of a punishing back-line, the goal-kicking of Weepu failed to quite reach the standards set by either of the exemplary French halves. However if New Zealand reach the same dizzying heights of their semi-final performance, this small blip will surely prove irrelevant.
15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Richard Kahui, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brad Thorn, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Sonny Bill Williams