Jonathan Davies: Kiwi bubbly is ready to pop – but the French could poop this party
Saturday 22 October 2011
They don't award the trophy until all the rugby's been played.
In the rush to crown New Zealand many people have seemingly forgotten this sporting truth. Certainly, the All Blacks would write off France at their peril.
The bookies have the Kiwis heavily odds-on – and so they should. But there is a chance, however small, that France could become the most outrageous party-poopers in the history of rugby union. Indeed, the very fact Eden Park will be crammed with fans so ready to pop the bubbly after their first World Cup in 24 years should increase France's hopes. Mr Unbearable Tension could be their 16th man.
Yes, if New Zealand get off to a fast start then it could be over. An early try or two would not only ease their nerves, but with all the in-fighting, all the criticism in the France camp, it would likely elicit a classic Gallic shrug followed by an equally classic "c'est la vie" submission. New Zealand were impressive against Australia and a repeat of that semi-final would be enough. Their challenge is straightforward.
But let's say it is France who somehow inspire themselves to produce the flyer. Why not? They're there; despite the supposed shambolic nature of their progress they are in the final. True, they were awful against Tonga, but this was a game they didn't have to win. They shouldn't have beaten Wales, but this was a game they just had to win when Sam Warburton was shown that red card in the 18th minute. Playing against 14 men is difficult in the sense it makes you want to close out the game and that so almost worked against them. Against New Zealand they simply have to play.
We saw what the French are capable off in the manner they blew away England in the opening period of the quarter-final. That was a mere glimpse of the standard to which they will have to rise. But like I said, they have the personnel. I wouldn't be surprised if the disorder has a galvanising effect on players who will suddenly turn to each other and say "come on, this is the opportunity of our lives". These players compete in what I believe to be the toughest domestic league in world rugby and are used to squaring up. They will have to do so like never before.
The front five is key. They have to come out with a physicality which will unsettle New Zealand, if such a thing is possible. Look back over the tapes and they competed well in the first quarter in their pool match with New Zealand. It will require something greater, but in their back-row of Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire, the impetus is right there. On their day, that three are as good as it gets.
France have talent in behind. Morgan Parra, a converted scrum-half at 10, is well capable of finding the corners. I don't go a bunch on their midfield, but the back three have the skill set to cause problems, to cause All Black hearts to leap into mouths.
And there's the point. If France can put some numbers on that scoreboard and rattle the home support, the pressure will inevitably heap on the players. I'm still not convinced about this side. Yeah, Aaron Cruden did well against the Wallabies, but he is no Dan Carter. He's an inexperienced lad who could be vulnerable. France's challenge is just as straightforward as the All Blacks' and I have a hunch it is going to be close and very, very interesting. World Cup finals very rarely prove otherwise.
Of course, the neutral would have had more to look forward to if Wales were the opponents. Once again there were plenty of positives in yesterday's third place play-off. But maybe, in a brutal way, their defeat to Australia summed up their World Cup. If you don't make your kicks you don't win games at this level – simple. It's the little steps which produce the big strides forward. Wales would have beaten South Africa if James Hook's aim was in, would have beaten France and would have beaten Australia. If Rhys Priestland had remained fit it could have proved much different. Hook has endured a torrid World Cup.
In contrast, his side has improved dramatically and I wouldn't take too much notice of this loss. In my opinion, the bronze medal decider is a complete waste of time. The edge isn't there, no matter how intense it looks.
Wales can obviously look back on this tournament with pride, but it's what happens next which will be interesting. In the past, we have never built upon the success, or even the promise of success. This time it has to be different; capitalising on the interest in the schools, ensuring we don't suffer the player numbers drop-off from the 16-year-olds and onwards. Potential means bog all unless it's nurtured and realised.
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