Fri, Sep 07, 2007 - Page 75 News List

It's time to hallow some ground in the stadiums of France

By MICHAEL COSTELLO  /  STAFF REPORTER

Four score and seven years into the previous century, third-choice captain David Kirk led the All Blacks to victory in the inaugural Rugby World Cup. He must have had an inkling that he'd achieved something that wasn't likely to be repeated anytime soon, because he retired from the sport that same year at the age of just 26.

And so it proved as New Zealand, favorites in every World Cup since -- barring the 1991 edition -- have failed to recapture the Webb Ellis trophy. Will this be their year, or will it be another case of "Four more years, boys"?

Realistically, there are only three teams that can stop them.

Kiwi skipper Richie McCaw may have said there is no reason why the French public shouldn't adopt New Zealand as their second team, but most of the host country's 64 million people will be firmly behind Les bleus. And that kind of support generally translates into success -- the only host nation that has failed to make it to the final was Wales in 1999. In their buildup to the Cup, France have humbled reigning champions England at home and away and are very likely to be on the field come kickoff time in the Stade de France on Oct. 20.

New Zealand lost only one Test each in 2005 and last year. So far this year, only Australia have recorded victory against the world's No. 1 side. The Wallabies' scrum has been the subject of ridicule for many years, but they remain the only team to have won the World Cup twice. Coach John "Knuckles" Connolly has picked an experienced squad without having to make room for Zimmerframes and bingo sets, and in George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Matt Giteau, Stirling Mortlock and Chris Latham he has exceptional backline talent.

The All Blacks have a positive win/loss ratio against every Test side they have played. The team that is closest to maintaining parity is the Springboks, who have beaten the New Zealanders 40.3 percent of the time. South Africa's once-proud rugby record has taken a battering in the post-isolation era, but coach Jake White's obsession with continuity in selection might be about to pay dividends. In Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha he has the world's premier lock pairing, while scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and electric winger Bryan Habana would also find places in many World XV teams.

The gulf between the superpowers and the developing sides in world rugby means that this weekend's games will provide few clues as to who will emerge victorious after well over a month of hostilities. Nevertheless, from kickoff in the early hours of tomorrow morning 20 teams are met on a great battlefield of war. And the rugby world will never forget what brave men did here.

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