On the 23rd of October, 2011, eternal favorites New Zealand- better known as the perennially under performing All Blacks- will face off against possibly the worst finalists in the history of World Cup Rugby. Well, since 2007 atleast (where a hopeless England team gritted their way to the final against SA). France possibly wrote their own destiny, effectively rising up to be one of those fairytale underdog team stories of the year after losing two games in the group stage itself. New Zealand, meanwhile, have clearly been the team of the year.
What is clearly the stat of the decade is that NO world cup WINNER has ever lost a game on their way to the trophy. That effectively rules out France, but records are meant to be mocked, or screwed with, once in a while.
The semi-final weekend was explosive, to say the least. Wales went down fighting, and the Wallabies were, in contrast to the first game, absolutely decimated by the All Blacks. Les Bleus are the surprise packages of yet another World Cup in yet another sport, clearly mirroring their football record- and Pakistan’s cricketing record in World Cups. A team unpredictable, for sure, but dangerous as ever. Win-win? For the first time in years, two attacking teams face off in an exciting final during an uneventful and disappointing World Cup.
Wales v/s France:
The first semi-final between Wales and France promised to be massive- and almost lived up to the hype. Wales were playing to reach their first final ever. France were playing against conventional rulebooks. James Hook, for Wales, started things off well within the first 10 minutes with a precise penalty kick that split the bars. The French players looked tight, and nothing like their fluent quarter-final selves. But then, Wales’ biggest disaster of their campaign occurred- in a crucial semi-final when they were ahead. It couldn’t get worse, especially after having their captain Warburton sent off. It was pure theatre- with fists flying everywhere, and to be honest, the decision was controversial. The tackle on Clerc wasn’t intentional, as replays suggested. Nevertheless, this, if anything, could have turned into one of the bravest performances in Rugby history- playing against that very history. Immediately, though, France equalized with a penalty, and slammed home their advantage with yet another one 15 minutes later. It was 14 against 15, and Welsh hopes were checking into heartbreak hotel.
In the second half, France looked absolutely dominant and slammed home yet another penalty to make the score 3-9. But, miraculously, against the run of play, Mike Phillips danced home in the 60th minute with a TRY for Wales. They began to go for broke, soon, in their typical attacking fashion. Things boiled down to the last 10 minutes, where the Welsh frontline kept pushing, and even reached the 10-metre mark, only to be thwarted by a determined and inspired French side. Wounded, scarred and battered, Les Bleus held on heroically to reach the final. A 75th minute halfline penalty kick for Wales wasn’t enough, as Halfpenny struck the ball inches short of the post.
Those inches were the difference, eventually, between agony and ecstasy for a hungry, staved Welsh team- that, I dare to say, deserved a place in the final.
New Zealand v/s Australia:
Australia has NEVER lost to New Zealand in a World Cup. This was a virtual final. Nonu eased nerves for the All Blacks very quickly with a TRY at the corner early on after Dagg broke through atleast three tackles. The home side were on their way. Weepu won another effort at goal a minute later, only to hit the post. Another minute passed, and a nervy Australia handed Weepu another kick- which he duly converted this time. The onslaught was relentless, and it was 8-0.
O’Connor kicked home a relatively easy penalty to get the Wallabies on the board, but a wonderful drop goal by Cruden after some relentless pressure only magnified the one-sidedness of this supposedly-tense game. 11-3. But Australia had beaten the World Champions without it being labeled as a ‘fluke’, and they came back with one phase after another, with Cooper finally crunching home a great drop goal. But Weepu kicked home once again to restore their 8 point lead at halftime.
The second half was one-way traffic. There was no choke this time, and the All Blacks stomped home to a tremendously brilliant 20-6 victory after Weepu struck a few more sweetly-timed penalties. Cooper was nullified ruthlessly, and nobody could deny that New Zealand had rightly earned a place in the biggest game in World Rugby.
Sunday will see the clash that typifies the mother of all sports-movie clichés. David v/s Goliath. Rocky v/s Creed, India v/s England…whatever you want to call it.
The fact of the matter is that France have a chance to shatter every statistic that ever existed in the record books of previous World Cup Winners. They may be the worst team to be in the final, but they certainly don’t lack the will. New Zealand, well, it is their time. If they lose this, they must wonder if Rugby, as a sport, is worth it at all- just like the South African cricket AND football team are wondering, just about now.
Here’s to the new World Champions. 24 years is a long, long time.