After six weeks featuring 47 other fixtures, the Rugby World Cup reaches its climax when New Zealand and France meet in the final at Eden Park today.
Fans in rugby-obsessed New Zealand are desperate for their beloved All Blacks to end a 24-year wait for a second World Cup crown since they beat France in the inaugural final, also at Eden Park, in 1987.
However, France were also the last visiting team to win at Eden Park, back in 1994 when they scored the celebrated “try from the end of the world.”
To listen to some this week was to believe it might be the end of the world, at least the rugby one, if a France team that scraped a 9-8 semi-final win over 14-man Wales were to emerge victorious today, having twice lost in the pool phase, including a comprehensive defeat by the All Blacks.
“Friendless” France have been accused of being the worst side ever to reach a World Cup final, of betraying their own rugby culture and being inherently prone to acts of foul play.
However, amidst all the speculation, yesterday saw New Zealand and France captains past and present talk more sense than many observers have managed in the days leading up to the final.
It seems almost cruel that an otherwise routinely successful side such as the All Blacks, for much of their history the benchmark for the global game, should be branded a “failure” as a result of repeated World Cup disappointments.
Yet coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw know the situation having both held their respective roles when the All Blacks suffered a shock quarter-final loss to France four years ago.
However, McCaw said the dominant emotion among his players was excitement rather than trepidation.
“It’s an opportunity ... We’ve given ourselves a chance,” he said. “The boys are motivated, they’re excited, but we’re up against a team that will be exactly the same and it’s about doing the job for 80 minutes.”
And as for the local media attacks on France, McCaw also told reporters at a news conference yesterday: “I’ve got no doubt the French are going to play their best game and you blokes have loaded the gun for them. They’ve got players who’ve been around for a long time and they understand what it takes to win Test matches.”
On any objective analysis, New Zealand have been the best team at this tournament, but McCaw insisted there was no complacency amongst his teammates.
“In a final it’s not about who ‘deserves’ what,” McCaw said. “It’s about who goes and plays the best rugby on that stage, in this game, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Meanwhile, there are concerns an All Blacks defeat today could lead to a collective national depression, both economically and emotionally and even, as has happened before, a surge in domestic violence.
However, one of New Zealand’s greatest rugby heroes urged his compatriots to keep today’s game in perspective and said the World Cup had been an enormous success for a country recently hit hard by the two Christchurch earthquakes, the Pike River mining tragedy and the recent coastal oil spill, regardless of the outcome of the final.
“Tomorrow night we come to the end of a fabulous journey, both as All Blacks and as a nation,” former New Zealand captain Sir Wilson Whineray wrote in a front-page editorial for the New Zealand Herald.
“What a marvellous event, reminding us what rugby can be, what it means to the country and how sport can put a smile on a nation’s face in difficult times,” wrote Whineray, skipper in 30 of his 32 Tests during the 1950s and 60s.
“While it has been a memorable cup, New Zealand should also be ready for the wrong result tomorrow night. France is also a proud nation,” he added. “Win or lose, we will be humble and gracious, no matter what happens. No one has a monopoly on winning in sport. Fortunately, winning is never forever — but neither is defeat.”
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