Michael Burgess ' Opinion

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Michael Burgess: How did France nearly win Rugby World Cup?

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Michael Burgess tries to understand how a French team who were written off by almost everyone came within a whisker of producing the greatest World Cup shock of all time.

Dejected prop Fabien Barcella and his teammates feel the pain of losing the Rugby World Cup final. Photo / Getty Images
Dejected prop Fabien Barcella and his teammates feel the pain of losing the Rugby World Cup final. Photo / Getty Images

As we were warned during the week, we probably should have expected this from the French.

They produced a performance completely at odds with their almost all their previous tournament form, dominating possession and territory (at 55 per cent for the match) and even edging the second half.

On reflection the buildup to the final was verging on disrespectful; not only did we completely dismiss the French as worthy opponents but every mainstream newspaper gave front page coverage to the 'filth factor' in the days leading up to the final.

The French have certainly had their underhand moments over the years but come on - does anyone remember Richard Loe?

We had forgotten that the French had been to the depths of utter despair at least four times in this tournament. They had faced the real prospect of defeat against minnows Japan and Canada, been towelled over by the All Blacks and then fallen to Tonga.

Being in those places builds incredible resilience, desire and determination - as we have seen in many other sporting tournaments - and that was the backbone of a courageous French display last night.

Viewers in Paris will say they were a little unlucky; they were arguably the better side in the second spell and they certainly didn't get any favours from referee Craig Joubert despite their mountain of possession.

Indeed, don't expect the French to gripe about it until 2015 but there were some definite parallels with Cardiff and a certain W. Barnes in Joubert's reluctance to find a penalty.

Definitely the best side throughout the tournament, suddenly the All Blacks looked rudderless and seemingly bereft of attacking ideas, especially in the last 40 minutes of the match.

But they hung on and it means that France remain the only nation of the 'big five' not to taste victory at a World Cup. They have now lost three finals - in 1987, 1999 and 2011.

The French started with an absolute determination to run the ball at all costs and held possession for most of the first ten minutes, without making major inroads.

Their attack, while containing some swift passing, still tended to crab sideways, making their runners easy prey for Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read.

At times they didn't help themselves. After gaining an outstanding turnover on their own 22 at one point through some fierce counter rucking, the French then elected to run the ball where they were outnumbered. The All Blacks blew over the top and regained possession, eventually winning a penalty which Piri Weepu should have converted.

There were other wasteful occasions. A terrible penalty kick by Israel Dagg - which landed 15 metres inside touch was returned with a kick straight back to the elusive fullback; he ran the ball back with interest.

The All Black's try - while well worked - had to be one of the softest ever scored in a World Cup final, as the French left a gaping hole.

In the second half the Europeans emerged first out of the tunnel - like they had against England - and looked like they meant business. They started the second half impressively and rarely faltered.

The sight of the All Blacks being driven back over 20 metres in possession - through ten phases is a rare sight indeed at Eden Park.

Equally foreign is the fact that the All Blacks did not create a single clear cut tryscoring opportunity in the entire second half.

The Tricolors on the other hand scored a brilliant try through their captain Thierry Dusautoir and consistently looked dangerous with ball in hand.

Only some resolute New Zealand defence, which has been their strength over the last few years though most choose to focus on their attacking prowess, stopped the French from making a more incisive and possibly match winning break.

In the end France will be left to rue a knock on forty metres out from the All Black line with a little over four minutes on the clock. It gave up possession and the home side held it within their grasp to seal the win.

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Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday. He was named the 2013 New Zealand football writer of the year and was a finalist in the Sports Reporter of the year at the 2014 Canon Media Awards.

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