Well, history repeats itself! In 1987, the first ever Rugby World Cup final took place in Eden Park in New Zealand, and featured the hosts playing against France. Now, 24 years later, the same 2 teams face off for the same trophy in the same venue. Amazingly, in those 24 years, New Zealand have yet to add a 2nd Webb Ellis Cup to that first one. It was believed by many, that the All Blacks would go on to dominate the World Cup. And yet, in the next 5 World Cup finals, they only appeared once, against South Africa, in 1995 (which they lost). Now, after so many years of hurt, they finally have a chance to emulate those ’87 legends, and take their place at rugby’s pinnacle. It’s not completely the same though, as, both France and New Zealand, had different routes to the final than their ’87 counterparts.
France had stunned everyone back in 1987 by managing to beat Australia, in one of the best games ever played, in the semi-final of that tournament. The Wallabies had been favourites for the Cup that year, and France were considered to be not in their league. But France put in one of the great performances, and with legends like Blanco and Sella on their team, wrote themselves into the history books. This time around France were a much different team. They had impressed nobody so far in the tournament, and had even managed to lose to Tonga, in the lead-up to the semi-finals. They had shown none of the flair that France were famous for, and were beset with controversy off the field, involving infighting between coach and players, and amongst the players themselves. They had shown flashes of form in triumphing over England in the quarter-final, but now faced a tougher test, in a very impressive Welsh team. Wales were on a real roll, having come out of a very tough pool, and then dominating Ireland. The Welsh looked to be en-route to their first ever World Cup final.
Wales, unfortunately, were just not able to control the match like they had against us. Their kicking was off the whole way through the match (they used 3 kickers in all), and seemed unable to put the finishing touches to any moves. Despite scoring a great try, through scrum-half Phillips (who’s probably the no.9 of the tournament), they failed to maintain a lead. France were really there for the taking, they weren’t a cohesive unit, and their tactics were poor. This was highlighted by the fact that, for much of the game, Wales had only 14 players. This was as a result of one of the most conrtroversial, on-field incidents, of the whole tournament. The inspiring Welsh Captain, Sam Warburton, was sent off after performing a dangerous tackle on one of the French players. This set off heated debate as to how dangerous the tackle was, and whether it merited a red-card (in my view, no). The ref, Irishman Alain Rolland, was at the heart of the controversy (not to sound like a broken record, but the whole affair reminded me of the famous O’Driscoll spear tackle, during the ’05 Lions tour. Amazing to think that, a much, much more dangerous tackle was committed on him, and his assailants got away with it scot-free. Not even a warning. Warburton was red-carded, and then given a 3-week ban. No justice!).
Anyway, I digress. Whatever the fairness of the call, Wales had to play a semi-final without their captain, and clearly suffered from his absence. This was especially true during the last 10 minutes, when Wales failed to score a drop-goal, despite a number of seemingly great opportunities. Stephen Jones had come on at out-half, but failed to control the game. He was one of the most experienced players out there, but seemed overawed by the occasion. The match finished at 9-8, 3 French penalties to a Welsh try and penalty. A low scoring match, with no points scored in the 2nd half. France were not deserving winners in my view, but they somehow pulled it off. They failed to capitalise on been a man up, and kicked away possession when they should have exposed Wales’s inferior numbers. Despite all this, they now go into the World Cup final, and Lievermont has the chance of going from the most ridiculed coach in rugby, to the most celebrated.
The All Blacks had faced Wales (ironically) in the ’87 semi-final and beaten them quite comfortably (not only is it a repeat of the ’87 final, but the ’87 Bronze match, as well). This time around, they faced a much harder test, in Australia. The All Blacks had dominated the first World Cup, and no other team had come within 10 points of beating them. This time around they had been slow to get going. They had beaten France earlier in the pool stages (this game is also a repeat of the 2007 Final in a way, between South Africa and England, as both those teams had met in the pool stages of the ’07 World Cup as well), but hadn’t really dominated anyone. They seemed to have the easiest of quarter-final opponents, in Argentina, but it took 65 mins of the match, before they started to dominate that game. Australia had also been slow in getting going. They had suffered a shock loss to us in the pool stages, and had a difficult game against Italy. They had managed to beat South Africa in the quarter-final, just by the skin of their teeth.
The New Zealand/Australia game seemed like it could go either way. The game looked to be a very even contest. But, from the first few minutes, it was clear that New Zealand would win. They put in one of the most dominant displays, and Australia were playing catch-up for the whole game. Israel Dagg, at full-back, had a great game. Their new/3rd choice out-half, Aaron Cruden, was immense game. There was a lot of pressure and speculation on him before the game, whether he could fill Carter’s shoes, but he came through with flying colours (amazingly, he was holidaying 2 weeks before the game, when Carter got injured. Quite a leap up, to go from holidaying to dominating a World Cup semi-final in 2 weeks. Wow!). His performance also reminded me of that ’05 Lions tour. Carter had played superbly in the first 2 tests but got injured. Everyone was wondering how anyone could possibly replace him before the 3rd. Then Leon McDonald stepped up, and had a terrific game. Like Conor Murray, Cruden has now jumped to 1st choice out-half. One thing he is lacking is kicking boots. The All Black no. 9, Piri Weepu, had to take the kicks and had a pretty poor showing. Still, New Zealand go into the final as clear favourites, and it will be there’s to lose. Australia had a poor day. Their out-half Quade Cooper (a kiwi) had a quiet game. He’s supposed to be a future star, but he hardly featured. Rocky Elsom, another of their stars, wasn’t great either. Unlike the France/Wales game, the much better side won this game.
New Zealand look to have the Webb Ellis trophy in the bag. They just need to turn up and collect. France are having a terrible time, both on the field and off, and look ripe for plucking. But can anyone underestimate them, especially New Zealand. The All Blacks have learned a harsh lesson, twice before. You can never write off Les Bleus. In 1999, France were having a difficult time. They had come last in the 5 Nations, been destroyed in a summer tour, and weren’t playing very well in that year’s World Cup. Then they completely turned it around in the semi-final, and beat New Zealand. It was the same in the last World Cup as well, in 2007 France had already lost to Argentina, and had a difficult time against us. But they managed to turn it around again, and beat New Zealand again, in the quarter-final. Will France be able to repeat these amazing feats? They certainly haven’t shown much before now. Will the final be when they really shine? Likewise, will New Zealand finally do it? 5 times before, they failed to win the trophy, and 4 of those times, they didn’t even appear in the final. They have choked so many times before, the pressure’s been too much. Will they finally be able to rise above it, and take their place as world rugby’s number 1? Officially this time, instead of according to the rankings? Can’t wait to find out!