The host nation takes a 26-match winning streak at Auckland’s Eden Park into the final and is rated the 1-10 favorite by local bookmaker TAB, meaning a successful NZ$1 (79 cents) bet returns a profit of 10 New Zealand cents. France, seeking its first world championship, is the 6-1 outsider.
France has “done exactly what we’ve done,” All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen said yesterday at the team’s hotel. “They’ve earned the right to arrive at Eden Park and playing on Sunday at nine o’clock. It’s a two-horse race and both teams will be doing their utmost to win it.”
Paddy Power Plc disagrees with Hansen’s assessment. The Irish bookmaker paid out 650,000 euros ($894,000) two days ago on the All Blacks winning the Webb Ellis Cup as they prepare to take on the only team in the tournament’s seven editions to have reached the final after losing two group games.
New Zealand has won three-quarters of its 483 Test matches since 1903, giving it international rugby’s best winning percentage. It beat France by 20 points in Auckland on Sept. 24. A week later, France slumped to its first World Cup defeat to a so-called Tier Two nation in a 19-14 loss to Tonga.
France, playing in its third final after finishing as runner-up in 1987 and 1999, rebounded by defeating England in the quarterfinals and Wales in the semis. The French were also the bookmakers’ outsiders on both those occasions.
“We know we are far from being favorites, given our level of the game at the moment,” France open-side flanker Julien Bonnaire, who was voted the man of the match in the 9-8 win over Wales, told reporters yesterday. “We have a small chance here and we need to take it. We will need a perfect match.”
None of the six previous world champions lost a pool game on their way to the title.
The top-ranked All Blacks take a 100 percent record into their first World Cup final since 1995, having topped Pool A with the maximum 20 competition points. They beat Argentina 33- 10 in the quarterfinals before inflicting two-time champion Australia’s biggest defeat in a World Cup knockout match with a 20-6 victory in the semifinals.
Still, New Zealand’s progress hasn’t gone unhindered.
Fly-half Dan Carter, the record points scorer in elite Tests, suffered a tournament-ending injury on Oct. 1 and his backup tore the same tendon in his groin eight days later, leaving 22-year-old Aaron Cruden as the team’s first-choice playmaker. Captain Richie McCaw is playing with a foot problem that has left the open-side flanker unable to train for most of the week in between matches.
‘Expect the Unexpected’
Carter, who’s been helping Cruden out with advice, warned the All Blacks to “expect the unexpected” against France, which scored upset victories in the 1999 semifinals and the 2007 quarterfinals when New Zealand was also heavily favored.
Twelve years ago, France rallied from 14 points down in the second half to oust New Zealand 43-31 in London. The All Blacks’ 20-18 defeat in Cardiff eight years later led to calls for coach Graham Henry and his assistants to be fired. They were reappointed following a review. McCaw captained the team that day and was also criticized for failing to change tactics.
“They are our arch-nemesis at World Cup time,” Carter said yesterday. “They’re such a dangerous side, especially when their backs are against the wall and they are having a lot of doubters. That’s when they step up and they’ve shown that in 2007 and also in 1999. The French are the best at doing something to surprise us.”
Being rated as the long-shot to win the final may work in France’s favor, according to New Zealand center Conrad Smith.
“The French will have it easy,” Smith said earlier this week in Auckland. “Everyone will be writing them off.”
The final, a repeat of the 1987 championship decider that New Zealand won 29-9, will be France’s 10th Test match against the All Blacks at Eden Park. The French have two wins there and were the last team to beat the New Zealanders at the venue in July 1994.
Although the odds are against them, France winger Vincent Clerc said the third-ranked French are capable of producing another upset to take their country’s first World Cup and extend New Zealand’s title drought in its national sport.
“We are drawn to difficulty and I think it allows us to bring out the best in ourselves and it allows us to believe in the impossible,” Clerc said. “We will try to write French history. It is not easy but we have the tools. You can never predict what will happen.”
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