AUCKLAND (Reuters): French rugby with its frequent brilliance, sporadic brutality and utter unpredictability has brought a romantic glow to the world game and complete misery to New Zealand at two World Cups.
On current form the All Blacks should romp home in Sunday’s World Cup final against France at Eden Park. History since France upset the All Blacks 3-0 in their first post-World War Two test warns against undue optimism on behalf of the home side.
France defeated the All Blacks 43-31 after the most astonishing comeback in World Cup history in the 1999 semi-finals. Four years ago they prevailed 20-18 in the quarter-finals after they had been written off by most pundits before the match.
“They are just ruthless and punch above their weight,” former New Zealand number eight Zinzan Brooke told Reuters this week. “They have the flair and the ability to break defensive lines.”
Former England captain Will Carling said Wales, who were beaten by only a point by France in the quarter-finals despite playing for an hour with 14 men, had played “incredibly well” during the tournament.
“But if the All Blacks were playing Wales they would be more relaxed,” he said. “France are the one northern hemisphere side which has no issues playing against New Zealand and they can beat them.
“They are the one side that can humiliate you, if they are in the mood and you let them play they will rip you to pieces.”
Ian Borthwick, a New Zealand journalist who reports on rugby for French sports newspaper L’Equipe, said New Zealanders and Anglo-Saxons in general did not understand the French.
“The French are something exotic, the All Blacks are rational,” he said. “The French have got something the All Blacks can’t control.”
After the 1999 loss at Twickenhan the New Zealand stock market slumped, a university offered grief counselling to students and baggage handlers at Auckland airport wrote “Losers” across the team’s bags on their return.
New Zealand head coach Graham Henry, who was controversially reappointed along with his coaching team after the loss in Cardiff, said this week the 2007 match had been “bizarre”.
“That game caused some people a lot of pain,” he said.
“It was the most bizarre game that I have ever been involved in. But we won’t define bizarre, not totally anyway, so there is a lot of history here.”
New Zealand backs coach Wayne Smith said his coaching philosophy had been influenced by the French approach during his time as a player and a coach in Italy.
“We come from a very analytical background, we teach the game analytically, whereas they are the other end of the spectrum -- movement on the field, game sense, playing with the ball and believing that you develop your skills and your technique through understanding the game,” he said.
“That was a massive learning curve for me.”
France were beaten by the All Blacks and Tonga in the pool stages then rallied to eliminate England in the quarter-finals before struggling against Wales.
There were reports of disarray in the camp and some provocative criticisms from coach Marc Lievremont before he announced a rapprochement with his players on Wednesday.
None of this will matter for a team who can play like clowns one week then like rugby gods the next. “They have been winning ugly, but winning ugly is okay,” Brooke said. “They have shown glimpses and I think they are going to show a lot more.
“Can the French beat the All Blacks? Yeah, they can.”