France in danger of mauling by magical McCaw
Awesome All Black captain desperate to secure New Zealand's 'rightful' victory in final that could be most one-sided since '87
It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that no great player in the history of rugby union ever longed for something more desperately than Richie McCaw craves victory in tomorrow's World Cup final at Eden Park – a desire so deep-seated that McCaw himself has struggled for words to describe it.
It is not the first time he has been unable to express his feelings at one of these global gatherings: four years ago, his response to defeat at the quarter-final stage was conveyed not in sentences, but in teardrops. Now, the long-serving All Black captain has this one last chance to lay hands on a prize the whole of New Zealand believes to be his by right.
If it is true that France, riven by internal squabbling that has left the head coach, Marc Lièvremont, more isolated than an imprisoned innocent in an Alexandre Dumas novel, are in no psychological state to raise a hand against a performer of McCaw's quality, then this could easily be the most one-sided final since the inaugural showpiece in 1987 – a match contested by the same two nations, on the same patch of grass in an unremarkable suburb of New Zealand's largest city.
Then, a ground-breaking All Black pack, bolstered by attacking backs as good as John Kirwan and John Gallagher, took a tired band of Tricolores to the cleaners, outscoring them by three tries to one in a 29-9 victory. This New Zealand side is not of the same quality – not good enough at half-back without the stricken Dan Carter; not sufficiently dominant in the grunt-and-groan department – but then, these Tricolores are not nearly as cohesive, let alone as captivating, as that first World Cup vintage. Without some sort of emotional transformation, signs of which have emerged in recent days without being entirely convincing, they are at risk of suffering a thorough beating.
Certainly, the assumption here is that this will be McCaw's moment. Long acknowledged to be the best open-side flanker in the sport – a breakaway forward who deserves to join Waka Nathan, Graham Mourie and Michael Jones in the silver-ferned pantheon – he demonstrated in last week's semi-final win over Australia that even on one leg (his well-documented metatarsal problems are by no means a thing of the past) he is both a champion competitor and a highly effective leader. Graham Henry, the head coach, will say nothing to his players before kick-off tomorrow. Why? Because he trusts McCaw to say all that needs saying.
When another member of the coaching staff, Wayne Smith, talks of McCaw, he does so in the context of All Blacks past: when he looks at photographs of the greats of yesteryear, even the sepia prints of the 1905 "Originals", he sees a common thread. "Like so many of our finest players, Richie is bright and he's humble," Smith said this week. "He comes from a rural background, so he's tough – hugely resilient – and never gets too far ahead of himself. He can play a game of rugby in his head, and the good thing from my perspective is that the team as a whole is starting to reflect his skills and values as an individual. He has been a really, really positive influence on this group."
Somehow, the French must find a way of cramping his style. "I'm sure someone will stand on his foot," said Dave Ellis, the Yorkshireman responsible for Les Bleus' defensive strategy, a cheeky grin on his face. It was a neat touch, given the tone of yesterday's public prints, dominated as they were by outbreaks of French skulduggery in decades past. (It is always interesting to read about the violent excesses of Gerald Cholley and Alain Plantefol in a publication employing those well-known All Black pacifists Wayne Shelford and Colin Meads as columnists). "I don't really know why they bother with this stuff," Ellis continued, more seriously. "It wouldn't be hard for us to write about 15 dirty All Black moments, but what's the point? And besides, the dark days have long gone. Those stories are for the old guys having a few beers in the clubhouse, and nobody else."
Ellis remarked earlier in the tournament that the French were playing rugby that was "too clean": not in the sense that they were not doing enough kicking and punching, but that they were not operating on the edge of legality in their work at the tackle area and their alignment in midfield. But it is not French discipline that is likely to be at issue tomorrow. As Ellis admitted, the challenge facing Les Bleus – who, man for man, are wholly capable of asking the hosts some questions – is to find a way of attacking New Zealand without handing them sucker-punch opportunities on a plate.
"This was Australia's problem last week," he said. "Yes, New Zealand started well: they were hugely aggressive from the kick-off. But the Wallabies dealt with that well; they came through it. I was expecting them to score and turn the game around, but that's the bit they failed to do. I feel they lost because their attacking game wasn't good enough. I believe the All Blacks have weaknesses that can be exploited."
History tells us that if any team can deliver an upset here, where New Zealand lose so rarely, it is the French. They were the last visiting team to win a game of rugby in this city – 17 years ago, when the sport was still amateur – and they have twice beaten the All Blacks in the knockout stage of a World Cup. On neither of those occasions were they given a cat's hope in Hades before kick-off, yet they did the necessary. No one can say with complete confidence that they are incapable of a third victory tomorrow, although the chances appear remote.
"Quite frankly, I don't know which France will turn up," admitted Henry, who seldom admits to not knowing something. "We're preparing as if we're playing the best team in the world. They certainly have the individuals to be that – they have a good scrum, a world-class loose trio, backs who can bite you – and as they don't feel they're being considered as part of this final, they're very dangerous.
"But I've been with my guys a long while now and it would be wonderful for them to win this title. We thought we were good enough in 2007, but it did not happen for us. The Sunday morning after that loss to France was very emotional. My three children were in Cardiff that day – my two sons arrived on the Friday night for the final stages of the competition, and 24 hours later it was all over. I hope it's a wee bit different this time. Victory would give me peace, internal peace; my wife would rejoice; my mother, who's 95 now, would be absolutely delighted. When you're at the coalface, you can at least have an effect on events. When you're close to that person but not involved, you're in a very difficult situation."
McCaw's desire on the one hand, Henry's yearning on the other. Crikey. If France successfully confront this tide of need – if they find a way of parting the waves and emerging safe and sound on the other side – it will be one hell of a performance.
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