As a nation we’re collectively saying that the All Blacks have already played their final. Meanwhile the French continue searching for their best game. Is this the dangerous mixture that will make Sunday’s clash a closer affair than what many experts are predicting?
In New Zealand, the hype mill is starting to produce oodles of confidence that the host nation is finally going to win another World Cup. Following the magnificent performance the All Blacks gave in their semifinal victory over Australia, the mood of the country has changed. The tense atmosphere that sat over the nation prior to the TransTasman clash has become an air of inevitably, that the win over the French will of course come.
For the All Blacks, their record in previous World Cups shows that such confidence can bear unfortunate consequence. The reality for the French is that history will play no part in Sunday’s game. Not even recent history. It would be wrong to predict an All Black whitewash solely on the basis of the two nation’s semifinal performances.
In scanning different rugby website I’m struggling to find articles which give France any hope in this week’s final. The one exception is this article that was posted on Bleacher Report yesterday.
However the reality is that I’m only accessing English content. The experts whose columns I’m reading mirror the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the game. However there’s a significant cultural difference that needs to be interpreted when considering French chances in the final.
Suffisance vaut abondance is the French equivalent of enough is as good as a feast. In all their games the French have just done enough. The reality of this tournament is that accuracy and the ability to grind out a win have been the guardians of success.
The French have brought a lesson to rugby, something football has known for years, that winning World Cups is not about consistency in performance. A result is a result. Sometimes a result does not even need to be a win. Tournaments are about creating enough advantage to string a sufficient number of results together.
The French are being criticised for the unconvincing way they’ve made it to the finals. However it’s this apparent weakness that could turn out to be their strength. For throughout the tournament they have shown this innate ability to just do enough.
Here is a team that has made the finals without necessarily having played their best game. In fact it could be argued that the French have not even played one good game, a full 80 minutes of rugby. Their success has come from three patches of effort:
(1) their opening 10 minutes against the All Blacks in their pool game
(2) scoring a late try against Tonga (thus securing a bonus point)
(3) a rousing 40 minute (first half) performance against England in the semis
So in total we’ve seen 60-70 minutes of “winning” rugby from the French in this whole tournament. What if the French were, and if they have the ability, to play 80 minutes of rugby this week?
In a press conference on Monday, All Black coach Graham Henry claimed that the French “can be the best in the world on their day.”
It’s this unpredictability that must gnaw at Henry and his colleagues. He knows the French are capable of creating a random concoction that will baffle the All Blacks and make a mockery of the strategies he’s devised.
The All Blacks play Australia at least twice each year. So there exists a high level of familiarity when these two nations come together on a rugby pitch. Beyond the tests, the individual players are vying against each other in Super15 games and other competitions.
Repetition in fixtures provides comfort to coaches, as they develop a better understanding of the relative strengths and flaws of competing teams. This accumulated knowledge allows skills and strength to preside over a possible surprise in strategy.
Henry must also face up to the eccentricities of his French counterpart. Marc Lievremont has proved there is logic to his madness. The surprises he’s thrown have caused confused days in New Zealand, for many of his charges and supporters of French rugby alike.
His skills have been derided by his inability to unify his squad, but again division may be okay in French culture. French football coach Raymond Domench suffered the same criticisms in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, but similar to Lievremont was successful in getting his team to the final.
There was no surprise that the All Blacks bullied the Australians upfront, suffocating their backs of quality possessions. But we can expect more resistance from the French forwards than what the Wallabies offered. The French loose forward trio all played significant parts in the 2007 Cardiff victory.
The notable unpredictability the French forwards have brought to this tournament is their discipline. They have played in a controlled manner, well lead by their captain Thierry Dusautoir.
There’s probably been no better display of leadership at this World Cup than with how Dusautoir handled the Sam Warburton spear tackle on Vincent Clerc. He ordered his forwards to retreat, to not take justice into their own hands and allow referee Allain Rolland to manage the situation.
In many ways, All Blacks fans are better off looking at the Argentina game as a guide to what to expect from the French. France will offer similar stubborn Latin resistance up-front in the forwards, but they also have a capable backline who have the potential to put together eloquent passages of play.
The late withdrawal of their fullback Kurtley Beale caused problems for the Australians. With Beale’s injury, the Australian lost of one the game’s best counter-attacking fullbacks. In moving Adam Ashley-Cooper away from his usual centre berth, the Wallabies also lost a penetrative midfielder. In Maxime Medard and Aurélien Rougerie, France have both these roles covered.
The French are also in a position to learn from the mistakes Australia made. In their semifinal victories, the All Blacks revealed a lot more of their game than what the French did. Expect a different approach to the kicking game from Les Bleus, more variety rather than continual high kicks to Cory Jane.
It’ll be interesting to watch the strategies that will fuel this final unfold. My expectation is that the All Blacks will win this. My hope is that the final will be a great contest and not the foregone conclusion many are predicting. It will be good to see the All Blacks tested once again, so that last week’s semi does not remain this tournament’s final.