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All Blacks fit the Bill

In 1980, a group of untested US college and amateur ice hockey players entered the Olympic Games as the seventh seed amongst 12 teams.

The Soviets, meanwhile, were essentially professional hockey players who had played together for years, and were representing a country which had produced eight of the last nine gold medallists in the sport.

To top it off, the USSR and USA had already played each other that same year, with the Americans suffering a 10-3 thrashing.

If they replayed the game 100 times, the Soviet Union probably would have won 99 times, but, on this the most important occasion, they lost.

For a lot of rugby pundits around the world, an All Black win this weekend is almost a foregone conclusion, and most feel that the All Blacks will defeat a largely underwhelming French team that has limped its way into this World Cup final.



Limping

In fact, based on form alone, France probably don't deserve to be in the final at all. After being beaten by New Zealand and Tonga in the pool stages, they then struggled to overcome a 14-man Welsh team last week.

In the whole tournament the real French team has only reared its head for perhaps 40 minutes against a limited English side, but, limping or not, the French have still arrived at their desired destination, and as their ex-captain and second-row Lionel Nallet said in a controversial interview which saw 10 French journalists storm out: "France have not been given the recognition they deserve; win on Sunday and they will".

Given the World Cup history between these two teams wherein the French have been their nemesis, the All Blacks and their management team will not sleep particularly soundly this week.

All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams, who knows French rugby pretty well after spending a season with big spenders Toulon, has added to the nerves and has warned his New Zealand team-mates to expect the unexpected from the French.

Williams believes that despite their patchy run, Les Bleus still have all the necessary weapons to stun the in-form All Blacks.

"They can shock us, as they have done in past World Cups," insisted Williams during the week. "You can play against one side one week and then you play against them a couple of weeks later and they're a different team. Past form means nothing.

"Their scrum is up there with the best in the world, their lineout is not too bad either, and their backs are unpredictable."

Over the years, the Kiwis have invested heavily in the area of sports psychology, and even their talismanic All Black captain Richie McCaw reiterated last week that this "All Black team has won nothing yet", but they are unbeaten in the tournament.

In the semi-finals, the Kiwis produced a masterclass of rugby. They dominated in the scrum and in the loose. Their attack, through the likes of Ma'a Nonu, was strong and their defence staunch, and their fielding of the Australian kicks was brilliant, with back three players Cory Jane and Israel Dagg hardly making a mistake in the air.

To win tight matches teams and coaches obviously have to establish a chink in the opposition's amour, but last week the Australians simply could not orchestrate any of their own game plan.

Every time the Wallabies tried to kick to retain possession, the All Blacks counter-attacked; every time they tried to bust the centres apart from the odd sortie from the impressive Digby Ioane, they met an unforgiving All Black defence.

The areas where France can exploit New Zealand are by dominating their scrum, a possibility given the All Blacks have not been tested; breaking the game up and making it unpredictable; and focusing on New Zealand's perceived Achilles heel: that of their brave but sometimes limited scrum-half, Piri Weepu, and their talented but still inexperienced out-half, Aaron Cruden.

If the French can just keep the scoreboard ticking over by taking every opportunity that comes their way, then the longer the game goes without the All Blacks getting their desired points cushion, they may just be able to panic the hosts enough to at least keep the game competitive.



capitulation

If France start badly and drop behind, then on home soil, they could just as easily be hammered (remember their horrendous capitulation to Australia in France last year?).

Most neutrals hope that the old France turn up and play with the type of flair and passion that the world of rugby loves, but recent French form does not back that up.

Yes, there have been glimpses of what the French can do under coach Marc Lievremont's tutelage, but they have been rare and workman-like rather than passionate.

Yes, on paper, France still possess some of the stars of the European game, but this particular team will have to discover something that the 1980 American ice hockey team tapped into.

Against a rugby-mad nation that is desperate to win in dedication to the many lives lost in the Christchurch earthquake tragedy, I believe the emotion, coupled with the All Black game plan, will see the hosts prevail comfortably enough.