These two teams have been beating each other All Black and Bleu for around a century, but there was only one historical touchstone on anyone's mind in the run-up to this evening's second World Cup quarter-final.
France's famous upset victory over New Zealand in the 1999 semi-finals has been chewed over again and again, and even Graham Henry, the coach of the team who now, as eight years ago, start as huge favourites, admitted he had reminded his players of it. "Not in any depth, though, as most of our players weren't around," Henry said, before there was a chance to make too strong a link.
To sum up briefly one of the most glorious switchback rides ever perpetrated with the oval ball, THAT match was also on neutral turf – at Twickenham – and Jonah Lomu was in his pomp. A Frenchman by the name of Xavier Garbajosa copped out of one tackle on Lomu and is probably still quivering at the thought, as the All Blacks built a 24-10 lead. Job done? Not at all.
The French – inspired by Christophe Lamaison, the Brive fly-half – ran ragged an ill-conceived New Zealand back division with Chris Cullen at centre and Tana Umaga on the wing. The French won 43-31; it was New Zealand's blackest Sunday.
So we know France want to party like it's 1999. Their problems today begin with a prince of flankers in New Zealand's captain, Richie McCaw, and the sceptred boot and hands of Dan Carter. Surely there will not be any kind of reprise? "I'm sure Bernard [Laporte, the France coach] would have mentioned it to his team," Henry said. "How do we prepare for the unexpected? You prepare right each day, the same as for every important match. There's no magic wand to wave, you just do the business, each day, and do it right."
Henry expects plenty of French kicking – "I think we'll be bombarded" – and nothing Laporte has said after revealing Lionel Beauxis and Damien Traille as his fly-half and full-back would buck that notion.
Carter dabs a decent ball himself and though his right calf – it is the standing leg for his goal-kicking – had a supporting strap on it at yesterday's captain's run, the fly-half was declared fit after having pulled out of the final pool match against Romania last weekend. That was an 85-8 win which finished off New Zealand's 309-point romp through Pool B after equally facile wins over Italy, Portugal and Scotland.
Only when the first whistle blows this evening will the All Blacks know for sure whether this preparation has been tough enough.
The French, of course, had far greater exertions after their opening-day defeat to against Argentina, before making it through as Pool D runners-up and travelling to Wales to almost everyone else's amusement.
There must be a joke in their relocation from Paris to the Hilton; there was certainly a laughable kerfuffle over playing kits – with New Zealand's change strip of silver-grey and black clashing with the dark blue of France, according to television producers.
Les Bleus, who had won the toss, may now be in all-white, and the other thing they share with England is a further lesson from the past which is that no team have lost a pool match and gone on to win the World Cup.
"The beauty of sport is that anything is possible, especially in rugby," said Pieter de Villiers, the France tighthead prop, though he was not slow to pinpoint a key strength of his opponents. "They have a front row that is young but also experienced and that is a bonus," said De Villiers, 35. "They've got the best scrum in the world right now. Our scrum, even against Argentina, has not been bad, but this is a different challenge."
De Villiers stuck to the theme when asked how Beauxis, an unexpected choice for his 10th cap and fourth start, would cope. "Lionel has a lot of potential and he used the occasion against Georgia [a64-7 win last Sunday] to win his spot. But this is different."
France have their old warhorse, Fabien Pelous, to counter the combustible Ali Williams in the engine room, so Wayne Barnes, the 28-year-old English barrister-turned-referee, may have his hands full. Indeed, perhaps the final in 1999 at this very venue should be recalled. France lost to Australia and went down allegedly gouging and fighting.
A few tickets were available yesterday at £190 apiece and though ordinarily one would hope to get a family of four and possibly a cat and a dog too in for that, it might be worth paying in this instance. If the French can turn it on, that is. If not, expect the All Blacks' rampaging wings Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu to open their box of tricks under the closed Millennium Stadium roof.
France: D Traille (Biarritz); V Clerc (Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), C Heymans (Toulouse); L Beauxis (Stade Français), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); O Milloud (Bourgoin), R Ibanez (Wasps, capt), P de Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français), J-B Poux (Toulouse), S Chabal (Sale), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz), F Michalak (Toulouse), C Dominici (Stade Français), C Poitrenaud (Toulouse).
New Zealand: L MacDonald (Canterbury); J Rokocoko (Auckland), M Muliaina (Waikato), L McAlister (North Harbour), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), B Kelleher (Waikato); T Woodcock (North Harbour), A Oliver (Otago), C Hayman (Otago), K Robinson (Waikato), A Williams (Auckland), J Collins (Wellington), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: K Mealamu (Auckland); N Tialata (Wellington); C Jack (Tasman), C Masoe (Wellington); B Leonard (Waikato); N Evans (Otago); I Toeava (Auckland).
Referee: W Barnes (England).Reuse content