On paper the All Blacks should win next Sunday’s World Cup Final at a canter. But they need to beware, says Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson. It looks like France coach Marc Lièvremont has God on his speed dial…
If the All Blacks’ demolition of Australia on Sunday was beautifully brutal, France’s advance to the World Cup Final at the expense of Wales was possessed of all the charm and grace of one its country’s nuclear power plants.
While New Zealand proved they have the tools in their locker to go shoulder to shoulder and toe to toe when they have to – and be no less aesthetically pleasing for it – France showed that they may simply have God on their side. Because how else can anyone explain their appearance in next Sunday’s Grand Finale in Auckland after such a turgid bunch of performances, culminating with the win against Wales on Saturday? The question now is, will it be the celestial or the bestial that triumphs this coming weekend?
French people have been looking at their shoes rather than my face all weekend, such is their embarrassment at the manner in which they scraped home 9-8 against a Welsh side reduced to 14 men after 17 minutes, when their inspirational skipper Sam Warburton spear-tackled Vincent Clerc. The outpouring of bile in the UK media towards referee Alain Rolland’s decision to give Warburton a straight red was one of the least seemly spectacles of the entire tournament; a knee-jerk reaction – mainly from former pros – who clearly hadn’t bothered to read the pre-tournament IRB directives and who seem to think that the rules of the game should be changed in accordance with what’s at stake. Just to be clear, here’s what the regulations state. “Foul play – high tackles, grabbing and twisting of the head and tip tackles to be emphasised – with referees to start at red and work backwards.” Warburton deserved his red, no question, but Wales didn’t deserve to go out. Again they showed immense heart from first minute to last. But the brutal truth of sport is that the scoreboard is and always will be the only arbiter and hapless France are in the Final. Will anyone dare to suggest they won’t defy the odds as they have done throughout this crazy competition and win a trophy no-one can honestly say their play merits?
Fans of the aesthetics of rugby have no choice but to support New Zealand on Sunday. To my eyes they’re a hard team to love. They cheat whenever the ball’s on the deck. But then again, who doesn’t? Yet their tiresome Haka and their pre-supposing sense of superiority seems ugly to me. Not that you could ever accuse Graham Henry’s side of being ugly out on the pitch. They may not have thrown the ball around with wanton abandon in the semi the way they so often have in this tournament, but the clinical efficiency with which their forwards disposed of a valiant Australian outfit was a joy to behold. The All Blacks have all the tools in their armoury to overcome any opponent and they’re quite happy to mix it up and show their full range depending on what’s in front of them. They’ve overcome the loss of their talisman Dan Carter by digging deep and getting on with the job at hand which is totally to their credit. And at times they play rugby that’s from another planet. Which sets up an intriguing situation for the game against France where the neutral, who normally aligns himself with the underdog, will this time be firmly behind the overwhelming favourite.
Can the French upset the apple cart? Before New Zealand disposed of Australia I’d have said yes. I had a sneaking suspicion that the Aussies would turn the Kiwis over, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. And while the French have traditionally been the All Blacks’ bogey team I think this time the Final will go according to the form book. The French have ridden their luck longer and harder than any team in World Cup history, but I’ve got a feeling Sunday will be when the music finally stops for Marc Lièvremont and his disfunctional bunch.
Living here in France it’s been disappointing to see the lack of public support for the national team. Behind closed doors there’s been plenty of ‘Allez les Bleus’, but out in public French flag-waving and horn-honking celebrations have been conspicuous by their absence. That looks like the aforementioned ‘embarrassment factor’ kicking in to me. We’ll have to wait until next Sunday to see whether things will liven up. And if a week’s a long time in politics, then it’s an even longer time in sport. Much might change. But it’s going to have to take something miraculous for France to carry the day. Still, it does look like Lièvremont has a hot line to The Big Fella upstairs, doesn’t it? And if the man with the daft moustache has any sense at all then he’ll be putting another call in right now.