With the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final nearly upon us, how will the world's most consistent team, New Zealand, fare against their inconsistent and unfancied opponents? Howard Kahn investigates.
Hands up, folks. And be honest. Please. At the start of last month, who of you would have predicted a New Zealand v France Rugby World Cup Final?
Ok, then, how many of you? Not many, surely?
I will be honest. I was 100% certain that France would not make it past the quarterfinals - even against an English side struggling more with an on-field identity than their troubles off the park. I also did not think that France would beat Wales this past weekend.
France have played about 40 minutes of good rugby over the past few weeks in New Zealand; they lost two pool games in the process, having earlier found themselves in a spot of bother against Japan in their 2011 opener.
But those two losses aside, coupled with their scare against Japan, they have also managed to look poor in the knock-out games they have won. They let England back in the second half of their quarterfinal victory and they kept Wales in their semifinal on Saturday by giving them the ball once Sam Warburton was off and they had a lead.
Yet, the French - against all odds - will be playing in a third RWC Final; more than Australia or South Africa have managed (both of whom have already been knocked out) and the same as NZ and England as history repeats itself from 1987 when the hosts, New Zealand, beat France in the first-ever World Cup Final.
With all this in mind, has there been a RWC finalist who has played worse en route to the final? Or, more importantly, does this make a mockery of the so-called four-year planning cycles?
My answers to the above questions: a very firm "No" and "Yes". In fact, only England - from 2007 - could lay claim to 'pipping' France in any of those 'departments'.
The RWC stage, however, is now set for the world's most inconsistent side - a team that has already tasted defeat twice at the 2011 World Cup - to take on the best prepared team in world rugby; an outfit desperate for World Cup success.
But just how well prepared are New Zealand, who, for so long have been teased for peaking between World Cups?
Well, for starters they have tasted defeat just nine times since the previous World Cup - that's nine losses from their quarterfinal defeat to France in 2007 up to and including Sunday's semifinal win over Australia; their first-ever RWC win over the Wallabies.
They boast arguably the world's most inspirational leader in the shape of Richie McCaw and they have the ultimate hardman in the shape Brad Thorn - a man who would not even stand back to a fit and firing Bakkies Botha.
More importantly, however, they have made it into the final without their most influential player in points-machine Dan Carter (something I also did not think was possible) who was KO'd with a serious groin injury before the end of the pool stages of the World Cup. And possibly a scarier thought is that even without Carter the attacking prowess of Dagg, Jane, Kahui, Smith and Nonu remains the envy of anybody.
You also have to give credit here to young Aaron Cruden. The third best first five-eighth in New Zealand (fourth if you count a certain Nick Evans!) had a superb semifinal and showed, dare we admit it, that there is life after Mr Carter in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
However, were it not for the tournament-ending injury to Colin Slade (Carter's initial understudy), then Cruden would have been left cooling his heals on the sidelines. So, perhaps one could argue that his selection in the No.10 position was a fluke? What do you think - was Cruden's selection as the starting No.10 down to planning... or luck?
What then about France's choice at No.10. Was that down to dumb luck or had it been planned all along?
Coach Marc Lievremont sprung a massive surprise earlier in the tournament by selecting regular scrumhalf Morgan Parra at flyhalf - ironically for the pool match against New Zealand late last month - and he has kept faith with his man since then; the selection reaping reward in the quarterfinals and semifinals as Les Bleus bounced back from two defeats to make another RWC Final.
It also got me thinking about selection - an area where Lievremont has been slated since taking over as French coach at the start of 2008. It is, however, a fair criticism when one realises that the starting XV which played against Wales was the first unchanged line-up that Lievremont has announced - from game-to-game - during his four-year tenure. Staggering!
Interestingly enough, 11 players (out of 22) from Lievremont's first game in charge (against Scotland on February 3, 2008) featured in Saturday's semifinal win over Wales.
The All Blacks had ten players from their first Test matchday 22 in 2008 (against Ireland in June) in action in Sunday's semifinal win, whilst 13 players who played in arguably the most successful All Blacks team in recent years - the side which clinched the Tri-Nations and won fifteen matches in a row with a win over the Wallabies in Sydney - featured in Auckland on Sunday.
Les Bleus, meanwhile, enjoyed their best spell after the last World Cup during the 2010 Six Nations. Ten players from the 22-man squad that clinched the Grand Slam against England in March played in Saturday's semifinal win over the Welsh.
Back to the current tournament, however, and despite all the goings-on in the French camp, 17 players who featured in France's unconvincing 47-21 RWC opener against Japan were in action against Wales on Sunday. The Kiwis, meanwhile, called upon 15 players from their 41-10 opening win over Tonga in Sunday's win over the Wallabies.
So you see... planning does help. Absolutely. But even one's best laid plans can fall by the wayside with one groin injury (or should that be two groin injuries?)... one tackle (Sam Warburton's red a case in point)... or one badly policed ruck (thanks Mr Lawrence).
Come Sunday, however, even the most organised team in world rugby would be foolish to take the French for granted. After all, they have not played any rugby yet at the World Cup... yet they now find themselves playing in another RWC Final.
New Zealand's record since the 2007 World Cup:
Played: 54 matches
Points for: 1,765
Points against: 819
Points difference: +946
France's record since the 2007 World Cup:
Played: 44 matches
Points for: 979
Points against: 897
Points difference: +82
* What do you think, folks? Are the Kiwis a sure thing for RWC glory in Sunday's final in Auckland? Let us know below!
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