AUCKLAND: After six weeks featuring 47 other fixtures, the Rugby World Cup reaches its climax when New Zealand and France meet in the final at Eden Park here Sunday.
Fans in rugby-obsessed New Zealand are desperate for their beloved All Blacks to end a 24-year wait for a second World Cup crown since they beat France in the inaugural final, also at Eden Park, in 1987.
But France were also the last visiting team to win at Eden Park, back in 1994 when they scored the celebrated ‘try from the end of the world’.
To listen to some this week was to believe it might be the end of the world, at least the rugby one, if a France team that scraped a 9-8 semi-final win over 14-man Wales were to emerge victorious on Sunday, having twice lost in the pool phase, including a comprehensive defeat by the All Blacks.
The ‘friendless’ French have been accused of being the worst side ever to reach a World Cup final, of betraying their own rugby culture and being inherently prone to acts of foul play.
But amidst all the speculation, Saturday saw New Zealand and France captains past and present talk more sense than many observers have managed in the days leading up to the final.
It seems almost cruel that an otherwise routinely successful side such as the All Blacks, for much of their history the benchmark for the global game, should be branded a ‘failure’ as a result of repeated World Cup disappointments.
Yet coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw know the situation, having both held their respective roles when the All Blacks suffered a shock quarter-final loss to France four years ago.
But McCaw said the dominant emotion amongst his players was excitement rather than trepidation.
“It’s an opportunity… We’ve given ourselves a chance,” he said.
“The boys are motivated, they’re excited. But we’re up against a team that will be exactly the same and it’s about doing the job for 80 minutes.”
And as for the local media attacks on France, McCaw also told reporters at a news conference on Saturday: “I’ve got no doubt the French are going to play their best game and you blokes have loaded the gun for them.
“They’ve got players who’ve been around for a long time and they understand what it takes to win Test matches.”
On any objective analysis, New Zealand have been the best team at this tournament but McCaw insisted there was no complacency amongst his team-mates.
“In a final it’s not about who ‘deserves’ what,” said McCaw. “It’s about who goes and plays the best rugby on that stage, in this game, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Opposing captain and McCaw’s rival flanker Thierry Dusautoir said France were also determined to seize their chance on Sunday.
“No matter whatever the sport, all kids dream of being world champions. It can’t get better than being the world champions and to achieve those dream,” he said.
“We showed great strength to get here. There’s one match left and we need to prove ourselves.”
And someone who believes they can is Jean-Pierre Rives, captain of the first France team to beat New Zealand at Eden Park back in 1979.
“I think they can win,” legendary flanker Rives, who led France to a 24-19 win at Eden Park 32 years ago, insisted after dropping in on the current squad at their final training session on Saturday.
“It’s not a matter of the score but their spirit. I think they are ready.”
Meanwhile there are concerns an All Blacks defeat on Sunday could lead to a collective national depression, both economically and emotionally and even, as has happened before, a surge in domestic violence.
But one of New Zealand’s greatest rugby heroes urged his compatriots to keep Sunday’s game in perspective and said the World Cup had been an enormous success for a country recently hit hard by the two Christchurch earthquakes, the Pike River mining tragedy and the recent coastal oil spil, regardless of the outcome of the final.
“Tomorrow night we come to the end of a fabulous journey, both as All Blacks and as a nation,” former New Zealand captain Sir Wilson Whineray wrote in a front-page editorial for the New Zealand Herald.
“What a marvellous event, reminding us what rugby can be, what it means to the country and how sport can put a smile on a nation’s face in difficult times,” said Whineray, skipper in 30 of his 32 Tests during the 1950s and 60s.
He added: “While it has been a memorable cup, New Zealand should also be ready for the wrong result tomorrow night. France is also a proud nation.
“Win or lose, we will be humble and gracious, no matter what happens.
“No one has a monopoly on winning in sport. Fortunately, winning is never forever – but neither is defeat.”