France’s Marc Lievremont is the only Rugby World Cup head coach on foreign soil heading into this weekend’s semifinals in Auckland. Bookmakers rate him the least likely to succeed.
Two-time runner-up France plays a Wales team tomorrow coached by New Zealander Warren Gatland. Graham Henry’s New Zealand faces Robbie Deans’s Australia the following day in the 15th matchup of the two Kiwi coaches since the latter took charge of the Wallabies in 2008.
“We produce good rugby players and I guess it means if you’re producing good rugby players someone has to be controlling that and that’s usually the coaches,” All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen said yesterday. “There’s obviously good coaches in this country.”
Henry, who has a 85 percent winning ratio at the helm of the All Blacks, is the most likely to guide his team to the title, according to bookmakers including William Hill Plc, who rate New Zealand the 4-7 favorite to end its 24-year drought at rugby’s world championship.
Australia, the 1991 and 1999 winner, is the 9-2 second- favorite to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for what would be an unprecedented third time, according to William Hill. That means a successful $2 bet would bring in $9 plus the original wager. Wales is a 5-1 chance with France the 8-1 outsider.
The All Blacks are on a 25-match winning streak since 1994 at Eden Park, which will host the semifinals and Oct. 23 final. Australia, which has won 58 percent of its matches since Deans was hired as its first non-native coach, last won there in 1986.
“It’s often suggested to me that I’ve got mixed emotions,” Deans said today at a news conference. “There’s none of that. I’ve worked with this group for a long time. You establish connections and particularly when you’ve suffered together, it galvanizes those connections.”
Wallabies coaching coordinator David Nucifora, who was in charge of Auckland’s Super Rugby team at the time of New Zealand’s shock World Cup quarterfinal loss to France four years ago, said the All Blacks’ home advantage brings with it the burden of domestic expectations.
“It means a heck of a lot to New Zealanders, the game of rugby, so I think that just puts a lot of pressure on their team,” Nucifora, an Australian, told reporters. “The players know and understand the expectation that sits on their shoulders to win a World Cup. You only have to walk the streets: it’s everywhere around you at the moment.”
The All Blacks, who’ve won three-quarters of their 482 Tests since 1903 for the best win ratio in rugby, took their only World Cup title in 1987 when the tournament was last played in New Zealand. Since then, the team has lost a final, three semifinals and a quarterfinal.
Two of those final-four losses came against Australia, in 1991 and 2003. Hansen, who had a stint as Wales coach before joining Henry’s panel in 2004, said the All Blacks aren’t allowing themselves to get bogged down by another potential failure at the hands of their nearest neighbor.
“Everyone feels pressure, it’s how you react to it that’s the key,” he said. “As long as you can walk toward the pressure then you’re in control of it, it’s not in control of you.”
New Zealand is the only team left with a 100 percent record. Australia was upset by Ireland, Wales lost by a point to South Africa, while France shocked England in the quarterfinals after back-to-back defeats to the All Blacks and Tonga. None of the six previous World Cup winners lost a match.
‘Under the Radar’
While France is in familiar territory after reaching its fifth straight semifinal, Wales is playing for a spot in the title match for the first time since 1987.
Gatland, whose 50 percent winning ratio in 46 Tests as Wales coach is below that of Henry and Deans, said bringing a northern hemisphere team to a World Cup in his home country has its advantages.
“The fact that we’re in New Zealand is probably easier for us because all the talk is about the All Blacks and Australia,” Gatland told reporters at his team’s Auckland hotel. “We can hopefully continue to come under the radar.”
While Gatland and Deans take different approaches to coaching, they have similar backgrounds to Henry and his assistants and all are committed to playing a free-flowing brand of rugby, according to Hansen.
“All three sides want to move the ball,” Hansen said.
Wales’s performances at the tournament are even drawing comparisons with those of top-ranked New Zealand among their semifinal opponents, said France No. 8 Imanol Harinordoquy.
“We often say they’re the All Blacks of the north,” Harinordoquy told reporters. “We can analyze their games from video, but once the match is on the field, that is where the problem starts. We will have to be able to face the challenge. If they play free, that is when they are the most dangerous.”
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