And then there were two. France and New Zealand will collide in the most important game in world rugby as they square off in the Rugby World Cup final this Sunday in Auckland, kick off 9.00am Irish time.
For New Zealand the chance to end twenty four years of pain is at hand, while France will attempt to prove that having a mad cap of a coach isn’t a preventive method from winning the Webb Ellis Trophy.
To get to the final both sides have taken drastically different courses. The All Blacks have purred into the final. Despite loosing the vaunted Dan Carter earlier in the competition, the hosting country have upped their game each time they have taken to the field and looked at their clinical and ruthless best when they dispatched Australia in the semi final.
France meanwhile have stumbled, tripped and fallen over themselves and they are still within 80 minutes of becoming world champions. Weather this is a reflection on the state of the rest of world rugby is a moot point, France are here, and on their day they know they can beat New Zealand.
Graham Henry knows that New Zealand may never get a better chance to lift the World Cup trophy than this Sunday. Aside from Carter, New Zealand have been fortunate to most of their front line players throughout the tournament.
Captain Richie McCaw has been his usual incredible self . despite only having one working foot to play with. Israel Dagg is another who has grown into the black jersey in recent weeks and will no doubt be ultra keen to make an impact come Sunday.
Despite having most of his team against him Marc Lievremont has selected the same 15 that scraped over the line against Wales. Despite not been a natural 10, Morgan Para will have a huge say in how France face up to New Zealand.
If Para can get his backs moving, the likes of Alexis Palisson, Maxime Mermoz, Aurélien Rougerie Vincent Clerc and Maxime Médard can exploit any weakness in the All Blacks defence.
If New Zealand are to win on Sunday, the first 20 will be vital. Aside from getting a lead on the scoreboard, meantally it will an ace in the hole if the All Blacks can get a couple of early score and put the French on the back foot.
Should France be able to hand with the All Blacks in the opening stages and even get ahead, then that fickle seed of doubt may be planted and eat away at the Kiwis.
Lest it be forgotten that when it comes to World Cups, France have had New Zealand’s number. Think back to 1999 and more recently 2007 in Cardiff. On both occasions New Zealand had the lead and looked booked for victory and each time France came back from the dead to break their hearts.
France will cling on to those memories,and who knows it may inspire them. They know that they can beat New Zealand. That mental barrier that most northern hemisphere teams have about the All Blacks, France don’t posses it.
However looking at both sides currently, there can only be one winner from this corner and that is New Zealand. They have the right mindset coming into the game and looking at them they look like men possessed. Totally focused on one goal, that one goal that has eluded them for so long.
All that pain, hurt and failure over the years can be washed away and a country can be set free. New Zealand to win. Expect fireworks
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Richard Kahui, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Sonny Bill Williams
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurelien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (capt), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 20 Jean-Marc Doussain, 21 Francois Trinh-Duc, 22 Damien Traille