Put it All on Black
Without Wales to cheer on in the World Cup final, Stuart Barnes says the game needs a New Zealand win.
Last Updated: 17/10/11 9:20am
History repeats itself as New Zealand meets France as they did back in 1987; same teams but extremely different circumstances. Twenty four years ago Serge Blanco dived into the corner for a late try to beat Australia. It remains, to this day, one of those indelible World Cup memories.
In bitter contrast, this French team has made a final without the merest hint of French 'gloire'. But that is not to say the passage to the final will not claim a place in rugby world cup history.
Their semi-final victory will be recalled for the controversial decision of referee Alain Rolland to make a rash decision to send Welsh captain Sam Warburton off after 18 minutes and thereby handing the initiate to a French team that was almost too nervously hopeless to take it with both hands.
Wales, with 14 men for an hour, should have won. They lost because France succeeded with three from three attempts and Wales just one from five. In particular Stephen Jones' miss of Mike Phillips conversion from the 15-metre line was the sort of error that costs teams tournament. Hard on Wales and Jones but these are the bitter realities of international sport.
As for Alain Rolland I will state that there have been many 'tip tackles' worse than Warburton's and none have received a red card. The dual national Irish/French referee set a precedent for draconian standards after 44 games of far more lenient refereeing.
The speed with which he made the decision was decisive but dangerously so and the net result has been to influence the outcome of this tournament in a way a referee never should. Why he had to be so quick to send Warburton off we'll never know.
But this much I do know; if Warburton's tackle really merited a straight red card the game has problems dealing with the balance between hysterical fear of political correctness in trying to soften the image and walking a proper line between what is and is not permissible.
In rugby league Warburton would almost certainly have been yellow carded and put on report. A committee would have met after the match and adjudicated over the incident. A clear red card is one thing but this sort of incident quite another. An error has to be made on the side of caution because once rashly made it cannot be changed.
In principle this is not a dissimilar argument to the death penalty. The risk of one innocent man going to his death is too great (apart from obvious humanitarian debating points) and Mr Rolland did his bit - inadvertently - to kill Welsh hopes. That they still almost made the final is testament to their courage and resolve and France's incompetent bumbling.
There is something about those dour Italian football teams that have scrambled their way to World Cup football finals - and sometimes they have gone on to victory.
The day after the final, next Monday, is Labour Day in New Zealand and a bank holiday. It will be national mourning if they lose the competition after performing with such conviction to dismantle their great rivals, Australia.
Having already crushed France 37-17 (with France playing their best rugby of the tournament to date) it seems only a cocktail of Kiwi complacency and French inspiration can alter what appears more and more as an inevitable New Zealand destiny.
This All Black team is a level-headed bunch while the muse has deserted France. They look like nothing but the England team of 2007 which fought back from the humiliation of a 36-0 beating against South Africa at pool stage to face them and make a better fist of it in the final.
This is different. New Zealand are performing with far more balance, variety and panache than a South African team which relied on the boot of Percy Montgomery, a great defence, the tactical brilliance of Fourie Du Preez and the best line out in the world. Hmmm, maybe it's not quite the formality it seems on paper...
France also possess a shrewd tactical game when Dimitri Yachvili is on song. They have some of the best kicking percentages in this tournament with Morgan Parra deadly accurate, while they undoubtedly have the liner-out of the competition to date. They will surely look to the touch lines and a squeezing series of drives to sap New Zealand who are so superior in every other department.
This is no time for neutrality. The sport needs a New Zealand victory. Forget the Francophile leanings and the great wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux. The game needs to see that the flair of Israel Dagg and Corey Jane and the willingness to play rugby with ambition and not self-imposed limitations, is the winning way.
New Zealand have worked hard on their defence which was immense against Australia but it is their capacity to ignite the imagination with the chutzpah of their attacking game which has to be the defining memory of a tournament that will be remembered for the greatest shock in the history of the World Cup should France turn around a 20 point deficit from the pool stages.
Last weekend I exhorted Brits to support Wales this weekend the cry is for all rugby fans to back the All Blacks for the love of the game. I love taking contrarian views but as I do the rounds in Auckland this weekend I will be wearing a black shirt.
Bad luck Wales, you deserved a final berth, good luck New Zealand, you deserve the William Webb Ellis trophy.