Rugby: France timing it right to threaten All Blacks

By Mitch Phillips

LONDON - Hosts France have signalled with impeccable timing that a New Zealand triumph at the rugby World Cup is not a foregone conclusion.

France have not beaten the All Blacks in nine meetings home or away over the past six years while taking some awful thumpings along the way.

But two impressive wins over defending champions England raise the mouth-watering prospect of a Paris final between the hosts seeking to win the Cup for the first time and an All Black team desperate to end 20 years of agonising failure.

Only Australia or South Africa look realistically able to prevent the top two following their allotted paths to the Stade de France on October 21 (NZ time), although Argentina and Ireland will do their best to blow France off course in the pool stage.

The tournament opens with the hosts taking on Argentina in Paris on September 8 in a fixture that probably comes too early for the under-coooked Pumas.

Ireland will present a stiffer test but, based on the impressive showings in their warm-up games and particularly the Marseille victory over England, France should ensure they stay at home for the knockout phase.

With world-class players in key positions and, crucially, high-quality back-ups throughout the squad, coach Bernard Laporte seems to have finally created a side ready to live up to his nation's hopes.

If a World Cup victory is important to France, it is essential to New Zealand.

Since winning the inaugural tournament on home soil in 1987 the All Blacks have gone into every edition as the bookmakers' favourites.

With each successive failure the pain gets deeper and such is their obsession with the event that every other aspect of the country's national sport has been geared towards success in France.

Coach Graham Henry has spent the last three years juggling players to enable him to field two virtual full-strength sides while this season the leading test players sat out the opening half of the Super 14 season to enable them to be fresh for their lastest assault on the Webb Ellis Cup.

Flanker Richie McCaw, first five-eighths Dan Carter, prop Carl Hayman and winger Joe Rokocoko make the All Blacks undoubtedly the most talented team in the tournament and their awesome record over the past four years speaks for itself.

Yet the slightest chink of light for their opponents has appeared in the last few months.

Australia's 20-15 victory in Melbourne in July reminded everyone, particularly Australians, that the Wallabies for one do not buy into the unbeatable tag and the 1991 and 1999 champions have proved they can it right when it matters most.

South Africa, too, gained some hope as the All Blacks needed a late surge to beat them in Durban. The Springboks, as big and mean as ever but now with a devastating cutting edge in winger Bryan Habana, should be a much tougher proposition.

England have been in disarray since their 2003 triumph.

Coach Brian Ashton, with few talented backs at his disposal, appears to have settled on a forward-based approach but they look too one-dimensional to have a realistic chance of becoming the first team to retain the trophy.

Ireland, for all their first XV talent, look thin throughout the squad and, with the draw very much against them, it would require a mighty effort to make the last four.

- REUTERS


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