It started out as a re-enactment to be savoured, a repeat of the very best from Rugby World Cup history. France lost to New Zealand in the final of the inaugural tournament in 1987 and here the same teams were, drawn to face each other at the same place, Eden Park, Auckland, 24 years on, the only difference being that this was an encounter at the start of proceedings, in Pool A, not the end.
That echo of 1987 made it a fixture worthy of a high admission prices but throw into the mix France’s World Cup hex over the All Blacks in the intervening years – epic victories in 1999 and 2007 – and tickets were like gold dust. This was a game with mystique.
But suddenly the shiver of anticipation vanished. Instead, this is now a game that apparently bears a curse. It all started with a result from elsewhere, with Ireland’s victory over Australia, hailed as just what this World Cup needed, a fancied side overturned by an inspired dark-horse performance. But when everybody started plotting afresh their course beyond the pool stages, it became clear that the route for the Pool A winners was potentially trickier than for the runners-up.
In short, it did not matter if France lost to the All Blacks. Marc Lièvremont apparently then pulled a stroke by announcing his team early in the week and naming Morgan Parra, a fledgling at fly-half, opposite the greatest player in the universe, Dan Carter. Goodness, what outrage that caused. The fixture had been devalued, the ticket price was a rip-off, the World Cup was shamed. Governments should and surely would fall. Dear me, what spittle has flown.
It could be pointed out that a defeat for the All Blacks would give them the “easier” route to the final: England or Scotland or Argentina first, then either Ireland or Wales. As opposed to Scotland or England or Argentina, then either South Africa or Australia. It might be said that Graham Henry was so relaxed at his team announcement on Thursday that he was fully aware that the sting had gone from the French match.
Willed to put out his strongest possible side, had he finally settled on his best XV? “It’s the strongest for this game,” he said with a twinkle.
The All Blacks have had to make a couple of interesting decisions, choosing, for example, to play Adam Thomson at No8 in the ongoing absence of Kieran Read. And Piri Weepu at scrum-half ahead of Andy Ellis and Jimmy Cowan. Israel Dagg starts at full-back, not Mils Muliaina. Sonny Bill Williams is on the bench – “The jury is still out on him,” said Henry which, on his easygoing day, was about as tough as he got.
It is a very strong selection and should surely give this utter embarrassment of a French team a right stuffing. Except that France are anything but weak. True, Nicolas Mas is unavailable at prop and William Servat is on the bench – to manage his knee – but a front row of Luc Ducalcon, Dimitri Szarzewski and Jean-Baptiste Poux are anything but flimsy.
Pascal Papé is one of the form players of the moment and gets his chance ahead of Julien Pierre. The back row may be light of Imanol Harinordoquy but Louis Picamoles has played his way into the No8 berth, while Julien Bonnaire is the pick of France’s lineout forwards.
Weak? The back three of Maxime Médard, Vincent Clerc and Damien Traille are vastly experienced, and if Médard thought he was part of a surrender conspiracy, he was doing his best to keep it to himself last week. Aurélien Rougerie brings size and similar experience to the centre, while his partner, Maxime Mermoz, may be fragile (because of injury, not temperament) but he brings attacking promise to the midfield. This is not an underpowered French team.
It is true that Ireland’s victory has changed the complexion of the knockout stages. This then is not a game fraught with stress, which means that it could be a belter, well worth the price of admission, with no side a loser. Relaxation all round: a World Cup clash of the heavyweights, with a tweak. The mystique clings to the encounter, despite the dust thrown in our eyes.