That the All Blacks performed well enough to win the Tri-Nations championship last summer did not disguise their lack of experience. John Hart put together his side at very short notice following the unprecedented run of defeats in 1998, during which time a number of those players groomed to replace Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce, among others, failed to make the grade. In effect, Hart had to go one generation on to find personnel with World Cup potential, and while the new recruits played some very fine rugby earlier in the season, there was always a possibility that they would crumble in the face of the extreme pressure that is part and parcel of a World Cup.
Of course, it is far easier for a side to say, "We'll put the All Blacks under pressure" than to come up with ways of actually doing it. This is where the French coaches, Jean-Claude Skrela and my old friend Pierre Villepreux struck gold with their strategic approach; they got their tactics absolutely right by basing their game around a fierce forward effort and the mixed kicking and handling skills of Christophe Lamaison, their stand- off. Lamaison's was a quite brilliant display. There was one loose kick, which led directly to Jonah Lomu's second try shortly after the interval, but leaving that aside, Lamaison was thoughtful and precise in everything he did.
It was clear that Lomu and Tana Umaga, his fellow wing, were dangerous with ball in hand, but it was equally obvious that they were vulnerable on the turn. Lamaison repeatedly put the ball behind them, forced them to retreat and trusted his backs and loose forwards to make their tackles. The more Lamaison created situations whereby his colleagues could take the game to the favourites, the more enthusiastically they responded. The spirit, the passion, the collectivity of the French effort was wonderfully uplifting; I saw Villepreux with tears in his eyes well before his side took a decisive lead. He was that moved by the effort and commitment evident on the pitch.
Many people, not least myself, expected the French to be over-powered; they had no real form going into the game and I still find myself wondering quite where they found a performance of such grandeur. But they do possess this instinctive ability to play the game at pace, to put numbers in areas dangerous to the opposition and to use their unique handling skills to great effect. When Gregor Townsend, the Scottish outside-half and no mean footballer, moved from Northampton, where he was being coached by Ian McGeechan, to Brive, he reacted as if his eyes had been opened. He learnt an entirely new set of tricks. When you consider McGeechan's depth of experience, his track record as a Lions coach, it shows just how differently the French approach this game of ours.
How do they do what they do? Like all forms of genius, it is difficult to describe but you know it when you encounter it. During my time as England coach, I became convinced that we had to move away from our one-dimensional style and to open up our game. To that end, I asked Villepreux to spend some time with the national squad. He concentrated on getting them to play the ball early, before contact rather than after it; he spoke of movement and of angles, of depth of alignment. He also demonstrated how the French attack a narrow blind-side channel with three or four players, rather than the usual one or two, and maximise the attacking possibilities with quick hands and optimum running lines.
To be successful at international level, of course, you need a power game to go with all those skills, and there were times on Sunday when the French could not handle Lomu, in particular. The British Boxing Board of Control would not have countenanced a contest between Lomu and the French full-back, Xavier Garbajosa; as we saw when the big fellow scored his second try, it was like asking a featherweight to go toe to toe with a heavyweight. But with Abdel Benazzi, Olivier Magne and company working up a head of steam at forward - and they took an extremely physical approach to proceedings - the All Black composure disappeared. By the end, they looked as though they had been struck by lightning.
Looking ahead to Saturday's final, I find the outcome very difficult to predict. I imagine that if the French play as they did at the weekend, they will lift the trophy. Is this possible, though? The Wallabies will not crack or crumble under the onslaught - they proved their mettle in surviving the physical pounding dished out by the Springboks in the first semi-final - and they are too seasoned a side to panic. But then, when a French side operates at the peak of its powers, they take an awful lot of stopping.
Rod Macqueen, the Wallaby coach, says he would have preferred to have faced the New Zealanders this weekend. He may or may not be totally sincere about this, but I see what he is getting at; the French are full of surprises, while you know pretty much what you will get from an All Black side. But then, this Australian side will play a more collective, co-ordinated brand of football than the All Blacks; they will control the ball, put phases together and pressurise the French in ways the New Zealanders could not quite manage. They are a very fine tournament side, equipped with a flexible, all-purpose brand of rugby and a strong psychological dimension. All things considered, they are marginal favourites.
Whatever the outcome, we have a superb final in prospect, a contest of great contrast and colour. I just hope it is not compromised by the weather. Indeed, I agree with Macqueen when he calls for the Millennium Stadium roof to be put to work. Why on earth spend good money on a retractable roof and then let the rain ruin the playing surface? The Americans have shown us that all forms of football can be played indoors without any loss of impact. Heaven forbid that this great showpiece be undermined by a downpour, as the Wales-Australia quarter-final was 12 days ago.
Meanwhile, let's continue to savour the events of last weekend and their impact on the world game. Rugby needed to take a big step up, and the four semi-finalists made sure it did so.Reuse content