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Rugby World Cup Final Preview: France vs. New Zealand

October 20, 2011 3 comments

This Sunday (23rd October) the IRB Rugby World Cup Final takes place at Eden Park in Auckland and sees Marc Lièvremont’s unpredictable France side take on the might of New Zealand. The two teams have taken very different paths to the same destination, but come Sunday night none of that will matter and the team which performs best on the field will be able to call themselves world champions. Sport Report assesses the showdown.

The Webb Ellis Trophy is the prize for the victors

Route to the final


Finished 2nd in Pool A with 11 points.

QF: Beat England 19-12

SF: Beat Wales 9-8

Not many people picked France to be in the final prior to the tournament kicking off back in September and in all honesty, nothing that we have seen during the course of this World Cup should have changed our minds. Yet here they are, preparing for a rematch of the 1987 final.

Francois Pienaar was perhaps getting carried away when he claimed that France had been ‘the worst team in the tournament’ but it would not be inaccurate to claim they have been bad. Their campaign got off to a solid, if unspectacular, start with a 47-21 victory against Japan and continued in a similar vein against Canada, a game which Les Bleus won 46-19. Then came the game that many felt would decide the group as France met the host nation. The All Blacks came out of the blocks quicker than Usain Bolt on a world record sprint and were almost out of sight before France had realised the game had started. The French conceded three tries in the opening 20 minutes and when Israel Dagg added another just after half-time, it looked like a rout was on the cards. To their credit, the French kept going and emerged with a reasonably respectable 37-17 defeat thanks to tries from Maxime Mermoz and François Trinh-Duc. Lièvremont will know however that his side cannot afford a repeat of this slow start on Sunday.

France’s final game was a seemingly straightforward tie against Tonga, but in a way that only they can, Les Bleus turned it in to a match which was anything but. Amid rumours of disunity in the camp and ill-discipline off the field, they put in an abject performance and lost 19-14. Fortunately for them, this was not enough for Tonga to leapfrog them and they had safely, and unconvincingly, made it through to the quarter finals where they would meet England.

The performance in the quarter-final against Martin Johnson’s men was a vast improvement on what France had shown in the previous two games, with captain and blindside flanker Thierry Dusautoir, openside flanker Julien Bonnaire and number eight Imanol Harinordoquy all putting in excellent performances. Two first half tries from Vincent Clerc and Maxime Médard helped give France a 16-0 half-time lead and despite a spirited fight back from England in the second half, they emerged as 19-12 victors. By doing so, they had set up a semi-final with one of the tournament’s most impressive teams, Warren Gatland’s Wales.

The record books show that France won 9-8 but that does not tell half the story. Wales captain Sam Warburton was controversially red carded after just 19 minutes for what referee Alain Rolland (conspiracy theorists have been quick to point out that he is half-French) deemed to be a dangerous tackle on Vincent Clerc. Still Wales were the better team but Morgan Parra’s excellent goal kicking saw Les Bleus book their place in the final. Despite the improved performances against England and Wales, many feel France still have not produced the one big performance we have become used to seeing from them at rugby’s showpiece event. They will need one if they are to triumph over New Zealand.

New Zealand

Finished 1st in Pool A with 20 points.

QF: Beat Argentina 33-10

SF: Beat Australia 20-6

Whilst France’s road to Auckland has been rocky, the All Blacks’ progress to their first final since 1995 has been serene. They cruised through Pool A with four wins from four, scoring 36 tries and racking up 240 points along the way. The likes of Richard Kahui, Israel Dagg and sporting superman Sonny Bill Williams ran in tries at will and Dan Carter continued to add to his world record points tally. The 83-7 trouncing of Japan was the highlight for New Zealand in the pool stage, but being as professional and proud as they are, Graham Henry’s men did not let up and piled on more points against France (37-17) and Canada (79-15) to seal a quarter-final berth.

The All Blacks went in to their quarter-final against Argentina days after the news that rocked New Zealand: Dan Carter was going to miss the rest of the tournament following a groin injury picked up in training. The final score of 33-10 makes it seem like a straightforward victory for the hosts but it was very much a hard fought win in what was an attritional game of rugby. Piri Weepu was the hero, kicking seven penalties from seven attempts, and tries from Brad Thorn and Kieran Read made the game safe. The All Blacks had booked a semi-final against their great rivals, Australia.

New Zealand have been considered the best rugby team in the world for the last four years and last Sunday’s semi-final performance showed just why this is the case. Richie McCaw put in a performance more than worthy of a three-time IRB International Player of the Year, dominating at the breakdown, and the All Blacks’ scrum was a thing of beauty. Israel Dagg was sensational at fullback and set up Ma’a Nonu’s fifth minute try and Cory Jane caught every high ball aimed at him. The man charged with replacing Carter and his replacement Colin Slade, Aaron Cruden, looked like a seasoned test player and the midfield did an excellent job of keeping pantomime villain Quade Cooper quiet. The All Blacks dominated for the most part and eventually ran out 20-6 winners. They were many people’s favourites going in to the tournament and based on what we have seen to this point, that assessment was accurate. They still have one big game to go however, and in Auckland in front of a partisan crowd, the pressure will be on. Can they handle it?

Key areas

When we look at where this game may be won and lost, there is only one obvious place to start; the scrum.

New Zealand’s scrum was dominant against Australia and the inexperienced Aaron Cruden benefitted hugely from the go forward ball the pack secured. However, the All Blacks are unlikely to have it all their own way against a first choice French pack which contains top class, experienced players such as Nicolas Mas, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusautoir. If France are able to push the formidable All Black pack back, they may be able to force the likes of Cruden and Weepu in to mistakes in the midfield. If New Zealand are able to dominate as they did in the semi-final, it will be a long and painful night for France.

Goal Kicking: If we look at past finals, it quickly becomes apparent that they have been, more often than not, very tight affairs. Only the 1987 and 1999 editions have seen winning margins in double figures and if Sunday’s match is also tight, then goal kicking will be key. Many top fly and scrum halves have struggled to successfully kick penalties and conversions in this tournament, most notably Jonny Wilkinson and even, to some extent, Dan Carter before injury ruled him out. Many have blamed the ball, others the conditions but there can be no excuses in a game of this magnitude and in which every point counts. Piri Weepu is likely to carry on with the kicking duties for New Zealand and his form since taking on the responsibility has been patchy. In the quarter-final against Argentina he performed superbly, kicking seven penalties from seven. However, last weekend against the Wallabies, he was much less convincing, kicking only four from seven and missing one conversion attempt. Nevertheless, he has shown that he is a more than capable goal kicker and if he can reproduce his quarter-final form with the boot, New Zealand will be odds on favourites.


Morgan Parra will need to be on form with the boot (This image is the property of Getty Images)

France have divided kicking duties in recent times with scrum half and occasional fly-half Morgan Parra and star man Dimitri Yachvili both sharing the burden. Parra kicked all the penalties in the semi-final as Yachvili was carrying a thigh injury and he was the difference between the two sides. Parra was rock solid under immense pressure and successfully kicked three penalties to score all of his team’s points. The two have been solid throughout the tournament, particularly with penalties and this may be crucial in a game in which Les Bleus are unlikely to cross the whitewash too often. If France are to stand any chance of defeating the overwhelming favourites, they can ill afford to throw away points through poor goal kicking.

The lineout: This World Cup has demonstrated the importance of set-plays and nowhere has this been more apparent than at the lineout. France successfully stole a lineout from England five metres from their own try line in the quarter final to save what looked like a certain try and they also out-manoeuvred the Welsh on several occasions last weekend. The likes of Bonnaire, Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape are all excellent in the lineout and if they can secure the ball in good areas, they will give their team a platform from which to attack and bring in the fliers of Vincent Clerc and Maxime Médard.

New Zealand have been no slouches in the lineout themselves, winning more than their fair share. Kevin Mealamu has done an excellent job of throwing winnable ball which the likes of Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock have gleefully snapped up. In the past, the All Blacks have shown a willingness to be inventive and go short, even throwing straight to the scrum half at times. If France sleep on this threat, they may be punished in the harshest possible way.

Key Players


Morgan Parra: If France are to win, their goal kicking will need to be excellent and it looks like the Clermont Auvergne man will be tasked with making sure it is. His kicking so far in the tournament has been superb with an 85% success rate and he proved in the semi-final that he can keep his cool under the most intense pressure. That said, he will have 50,000 rugby mad Kiwis heckling him at every attempt this weekend and it remains to be seen how he copes with that. Parra does of course bring much more than just goal kicking. He showed a willingness to carry the ball in the semi-final and he is technically excellent, able to pass accurately and quickly on either side. He is also a big influence on the field, as his nickname le petit général suggests.

Vincent Clerc: The man known as Moses has been France’s most potent attacking force in this World Cup and is in fact the tournament’s joint leading try scorer with six. His pace on the wing and small stature allows him to spot gaps in the defence, run through them and evade tackles and New Zealand will have to keep a close watch on him when France are in possession, if they fail to do so, he may very well add to his 31 international tries. His experience, earned over a 55 cap career, is also a big plus for Marc Lièvremont’s side.

Thierry Dusautoir will no doubt do his best to rouse his troops (This image is the property of Getty Images)

Thierry Dusautoir: Both sides have top class loose forwards, all of whom will need to be on top form on Sunday. If Dusautoir, Bonnaire and Harinordoquy are not, then Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read may just have a field day. Dusautoir has the added responsibility of being captain and if the All Blacks get off to a flying start as they did in the pool stage game, it is he who will need to rally the troops and make them believe that they can still win. If he is at his inspirational best, he could possibly just make his teammates believe that they can pull off the upset.

New Zealand

Richie McCaw: With whom else but Captain Marvel could we start when looking at the All Blacks key men? The three time IRB International Player of the Year has been affected by a list of injuries that would impress Darren Anderton, yet he has still produced top class performances whenever he has played. His performance last week against Australia, in which he outplayed fellow number seven and David Pocock, was truly remarkable. He was part of a defence that looked sturdier than the Berlin Wall and his work at the breakdown was exceptional. If he is at his best, there is no better player in the sport. Inspired by a raucous home crowd and fired up by the knowledge that this may be his last chance to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy, he may just play the game of his life.

Aaron Cruden: Aaron Cruden’s story is pure Hollywood. Just three weeks ago he was on his skateboard at a local skate park with his friends, now he is the man tasked with replacing rugby’s poster boy Dan Carter in a World Cup Final in his home country. Cruden showed against the Wallabies that he can more than hold his own at this level, but the All Blacks’ tight five dominated and gave him good go forward ball. How will he react if France trouble the New Zealand scrum and put him under pressure? France may look to target Cruden as what they see as a weak link and it must be said that eight caps is no real sort of preparation for a game of this importance, particularly in a position as pivotal as fly-half. If Cruden answers these questions emphatically, he will be a national hero come Sunday night.

All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw can cap a fine career with the sport's ultimate prize (This image is the property of the Belfast Telegraph)

Israel Dagg: Israel Dagg has had an interesting tournament. He arrived as New Zealand’s second choice fullback, has been disciplined for going on a drinking binge with Cory Jane, established himself as his country’s first choice number 15 and has been one of the host nation’s star performers. His direct and pacey runs from the backfield have opened up gaps for others, as evidenced by Ma’a Nonu’s try against Australia, and Dagg has himself crossed the try line on five occasions. He was excellent against the Wallabies and if France focus on stopping the likes of Nonu and Jane, Dagg could be the main beneficiary.

The Verdict

In recent years, New Zealand have been rugby’s supermen, but at World Cups France have proved to be their kryptonite. Les Bleus triumphed 20-18 in a classic four years ago, but I just cannot see a repeat this time around. France have been remarkably underwhelming so far and rumours of disunity in the camp continue to be published on a daily basis. New Zealand have quality all over the pitch, as well as impact players of the calibre of Sonny Bill Williams on the bench. This quality will allow them to punish France if they are even one per cent below par. In front of a home crowd and with the opportunity to end 24 years of hurt, I expect the All Blacks to finally deliver on years of promise and win the World Cup by a margin of 20 points.

Sport Report Prediction: New Zealand 35-15 France

Categories: Rugby Union

Who will win the Rugby World Cup?

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

The Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand in a matter of hours and the All Blacks are overwhelming favourites to win their first title since 1987. It is however, far from a foregone conclusion. Who do you think will win?

Categories: Rugby Union

Introducing Dan Carter

July 29, 2010 4 comments

Do the names Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Lebron James sound familiar? Thought so. How about Dan Carter? Probably not. All of these sportsmen have one thing in common; they are among the best exponents of their craft and some of the most talented individuals their respective sports have ever seen. For Woods, Messi, Ronaldo, Federer, Nadal and James, their talent has brought them fame and fortune, but what about Carter?

It would be interesting to see what level of name recognition Carter has in the UK, I would guess considerably less than in his homeland of New Zealand, but considerably more than in, say, the US. For those of you who have not heard of Dan Carter, he is the All Blacks’ fly half and star player. Since making his international debut in 2003, the number 10 has made 71 appearances for his country and has amassed an incredible 1075 points, including an impressive 27 tries. Of these 71 matches, the All Blacks have lost just eight, showing how much of a difference Carter makes. His average of 15 points per game is the highest of any international player who has scored more than 500 points. In addition to his role for the All Blacks, Carter represents the Crusaders in New Zealand’s Super 14. He is the competition’s all-time leading scorer. Make no mistake about it, Carter is much more than a points machine. He has the pace to open up opposition defences, the vision to bring teammates in to play and the ability to kick the ball wherever he chooses. He started his international career at inside-centre and his progression to the sport’s standout fly half is testament to his talent and versatility. He has won a whole host of personal accolades, including the IRB Player of the Year in 2005. He has been nominated a further two times, a total exceeded only by his teammate Richie McCaw. Carter is still only 28 years of age and his achievements stand up against any in the world of sport, so why does he not enjoy the exposure that the likes of Ronaldo, Federer, Woods etc. do? In truth, it is owing to the sport in which he excels.

Rugby's superstar Dan Carter (This image is the property of the BBC)

Rugby may be the national game in New Zealand, but on the world stage, it is still seen as a strange game played by a handful of nations in which people inexplicably bash in to one and other at breakneck speed. This is of course a gross over-simplification of what is a highly tactical and athletic sport, but the fact is rugby is a poor relation of football, golf, tennis etc. It simply does not have the global significance that these other sports do.

Those who possess Carter’s ability in more mainstream sports are global stars and multi-millionaires. Whilst I am in no way claiming Carter is a pauper (Perpignan reputedly paid him a whopping £30,000 a game for his short spell there), compared to the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and even James, who plays what is still a very US-centric sport, the Kiwi is lagging way behind in the fame and marketability stakes. In fact, decidedly average footballers such as Emile Heskey and Pascal Chimbonda enjoy greater fame and wealth than Carter which just goes to show that the fame one can achieve and the money one can make is very much dependent on the sport one plays and not the ability one has.

Whilst it is a shame that Carter does not enjoy the adulation his talent merits, he certainly does not let it bother him. Despite injuries in recent times, the star fly half continues to rack up points and lead his country to victory after victory and we should enjoy watching such a phenomenal talent for as long as he continues to play. The big question however, is can he finally lead the All Blacks to their first World Cup triumph since 1987? If he can, his stock will rise further and he will become an even greater national hero than he is now. You would be a brave person to bet against the All Blacks pulling it off.

Categories: Rugby Union