To suggest anything but a New Zealand victory in the World Cup Final against France seems madness. It seems that at last New Zealand will get the monkey off their back and surf with the surge of the nation to a victory in the City of Sails. And yet...
Remember 1994 at Eden Park, when New Zealand were in the lead and in control till Philippe Saint-André grabbed a kick and started running in his 22. The French raced down the field to score one of the great Test tries to win the match and the series - and they did it in stunned silence.
Remember 1999 and the World Cup semifinal at Twickenham, when New Zealand were going powerfully to victory till Christophe Lamaison took over and the French raced to a 43-31 victory - and the whole of Europe cheered them on.
And remember the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal in Cardiff, when France savaged New Zealand hopes.
Those memories are all cautionary tales and yet one just cannot see how this French side, so out of sorts, so at odds with itself, could possibly beat these All Blacks, so clearly the best side in the world.
Go man for man, go unit for unit, go team for team and you cannot see France winning.
The teams have met already at this World Cup and New Zealand won comfortably. In fact no other side has lost two pool matches and got to the Final, as France have just done. Lose to Tonga and beat England and then Wales.
They may be devoid of French flair but not, it seems, of unpredictability.
If they play their game of mindless kicking that they used against Wales, New Zealand will run away with them. The All Blacks have at the back three great catchers who can all counterattack. If the French run wide, they will run into zealous tackling. If they bash at close quarters, they will meet raw, uncompromising muscle. It's hard to see France winning.
In the first match the line-outs were pretty even, and they should be again this time. France were slightly better at the scrums, and that could be the case again this time though the All Blacks believe that they have got their technique right. The All Blacks will be up against a brightly hardy trio up front. The contest between the tight forwards could be significant for two excellent sets of loose forwards. All in all, the scrum battle could be a tough one - not that either side is likely to flinch.
Once the ball gets amongst the backs and presuming that both sets get running, the All Blacks look to have greater flair. Look to have. That flair brought them one try against Australia and two against Argentina, the second two minutes from the end.
France scored two against England and none against Wales.
But then finals are not necessarily about tries. A one-point victory is enough, however the scoring happens.
Defence wins the World Cup, they say. In the knock-out matches France conceded three tries, New Zealand one.
If it came down to goal-kicking, both sides have accurate kickers - effective Piri Weepu for New Zealand with back-up from Aaron Cruden and Israel Dagg, Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra for France.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: Backs catch the eye most and none more so than Israel Dagg, cutting defences to shreds with a cavalier's laugh. Was there a player at the World Cup who enjoyed the game more than Dagg did? Then there is Cory Jane who was magnificent against Australia - fielding the high ball, running with the ball, putting in the clever kick. Then there is the frisson of excitement every time Ma'a Nonu gets the ball and the sudden unpredictability of Aaron Cruden.
For France: If they play the way they did against Wales, they will have nobody worth watching - except perhaps energetic Vincent Clerc.
Head to Head: The flyhalf contest - Cruden vs Parra, Cruden unpredictable enough to be a mini Cooper, Parra with a good eye for a gap, Cruden perhaps more likely to control where his team will play. Two strong centres oppose each other - Aurélien Rougerie and the elegant Conrad Smith, two stags locking horns. At scrumhalf there are two effective players, Piri Weepu and Dimitri Yachvili, both with good boots but unglamorous Weepu perhaps the shrewder of the two. It is in the forwards that the harshest battles could take place - from the contest between the sturdy hookers, Keven Mealamu and William Servat, to the tall, skilful No.8s - Kieran Read and Imanol Harinordoquy, both athletic, both blessed with many talents. Then there are the strong silent men, Jerome Kaino and Julien Bonnaire, the captains Thierry Dusautoir and Richie McCaw, who had a better game against Australia last Sunday, and the old warhorses Brad Thorn and Lionel Nallet.
2011: New Zealand won 37-17, Auckland
2009: New Zealand won 39-12, Marseille
2009: New Zealand won 14-10, Wellington
2009: France won 27-22, Dunedin
2007: France won 20-18, Cardiff
2007: New Zealand won 61-10, Wellington
2007: New Zealand won 42-11, Auckland
2006: New Zealand won 23-11, Paris
2006: New Zealand won 47-3, Lyon
2004: New Zealand won 45-6, Paris
Road to the Final:
Friday, September 9: beat Tonga 41-10, Auckland (pool match)
Friday, September 16: beat Japan 83-7, Hamilton (pool match)
Saturday, September 24: beat France 37-17, Auckland (pool match)
Sunday, October 2: Canada 79-15, Wellington (pool match)
Sunday, October 9: Argentina 33-10, Auckland (quarterfinal)
Sunday, October 16: beat Australia 20-6, Auckland (semifinal)
Saturday, September 10: beat Japan 47-21, Albany (pool match)
Sunday, September 18: beat Canada 46-19, Napier (pool match)
Saturday, September 24: lost to New Zealand 17-37, Auckland (pool match)
Saturday, October 1: lost to Tonga 14-19, Wellington (pool match)
Saturday, October 8: beat England 19-12, Auckland (quarterfinal)
Saturday, October 15: beat Wales 9-8, Auckland (semifinal)
Prediction: The whole world expects a New Zealand victory. It seems daft to suggest anything else, not the way the France are playing and not when you compare personnel, and yet there is till that nagging thought - 1994, 1999, 2007.... But nagging be damned, we suggest that New Zealand will win by more than 25 points.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Richard Kahui, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brad Thorn, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (captain), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 20 Francois Trinh-Duc, 21 Jean Marc Doussain, 22 Damien Traille.
Date: Sunday, October 23
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 21.00 (08.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Partly cloudy with a high of 19°C, dropping to 10°C.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Nigel Owens (Wales)
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
By Paul Dobson
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