If you’re a typical American sports fan, chances are you’ll be fast asleep when New Zealand’s All Blacks belt out the Haka just before the start of Sunday’s 2011 Rugby World Cup final against France.
And if you’re a typical American, chances are you’ll be watching the usual slate of Sunday afternoon football when NBC replays the match at 3 p.m. EST.
But if you genuinely consider yourself a sports fan, do yourself a favor and flick over to NBC during the commercials of the Packers’ rout of Minnesota or Pittsburgh’s tantalizing matchup with Arizona (that’s your afternoon slate in the D.C. market) to see what you’re missing. You may like what you see.
If you’re already a rugby fan, you’ll be up at the 4 a.m. sharp to watch the matchup between the two bitter rivals live. But if you’re not, here are some things to be aware of if you decide to give rugby a whirl.
Do not miss the start of the match. Every All Blacks test (that’s what they call a match) begins with a stirring, spine-tingling rendition of the traditional ancestral war dance of New Zealand’s native Māori people. The team throws down the gauntlet with a seemingly-possessed chant and dance while the challengers stand and watch. It’s an incredibly intimidating spectacle and always gets the team and the crowd fired up. (Think Ray Lewis leading the “What time is it?” chant... by 100-times more intense). Let me reiterate: do NOT miss the start of the match.
France and New Zealand hardly seem like natural rivals. They’re on opposite sides of the globe and in opposite hemisphere’s. But when you’ve met in the Rugby World Cup knockout stages as many times as these two teams, there’s bound to be some bad blood. The All Blacks won their only Cup to date on home soil at the inaugural tournament in
1989 1987. Their opponent? France. But since that day at Eden Park, Les Bleus have given the All Blacks a serious case of the blues. In 1999 France rallied from a 24-10 halftime deficit to stun heavily-favored New Zealand, 43-31, in a loss that still stings today for Kiwis. In 2007, France did it again, dropping New Zealand 20-18 in the quarterfinals.
The two sides have met five previous times in the World Cup, with New Zealand holding a 3-2 edge. The All Blacks got some measure of revenge by handling Les Bleus in a 37-17 pool stage victory earlier in the tournament, but they’ll need to cast off past demons once and for all on Sunday in Auckland.
It’s a rare occurrence that the All Blacks arrive at a World Cup as anything other than an odds-on favorite to reach the final. But if you’d have pinned your bets on them in any of the five tournaments following their inaugural victory, you would’ve come up empty four out of five times. New Zealand last reached the final in 1995, when they went on to lose 15-12 to hosts South Africa.
Still, rugby is a way of life in New Zealand and the Kiwis play the game at the highest level. Their starting 15 features speed, brute strength and plenty of capable passers who know how to exploit the soft spots in France’s defense. Coach Graham Henry will trot out the same lineup that thrashed Australia 20-6 in the semifinals. The All Blacks have won their six matches in the tournament by an average of 37.7 points per contest.
France is that scrappy, not-quite-as-talented-yet-always-capable-of-pulling-the-upset thorn in New Zealand’s side. Les Bleus have had to claw their way through the tournament, putting forth inconsistent, often ugly efforts along the way which have their faithful back home howling over the coaching decisions of Marc Lievremeont.
Les Bleus finished second behind the All Blacks in Pool A despite losing to Tonga in their pool finale, 19-14. The got past England 19-12 in the quarterfinals with a pair of first half tries from Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard. Then in the semifinals, they held on to defeat a Wales side playing a man down for the final 61 minutes, 9-8, despite not scoring a try. Yet here they are once again, in their third final and still looking for their first Webb Ellis Cup with little to lose and everything to gain.
Players to Watch
Israel Dagg, New Zealand, fullback: The fleet-footed flanker has displayed a magic touch around the goal line for the All Blacks and comes into the final with five tries to his name already. He knows how to find space when running without the ball and once he’s got it, it’s often already too late for the defense to catch him. Dagg fought his way back from a ruptured right quad suffered in May to make Henry’s roster and boy are the All Blacks glad he did.
Piri Weepu, New Zealand, scrumhalf: From leading the Haka to kicking goals, Weepu is a vital figure in the team’s aspirations to hoist the Cup once more. When Dan Carter went down with an injury, Weepu stepped up to take kicks and his conversion rate has been nothing short of stellar with 11 penalties and four conversions. Weepu wears his heart on his sleeve (or face), so keep an eye on No. 9.
Dimitri Yachvili, France, scrumhalf: Playing in tandem with newly promoted flyhalf Morgan Parra, Yachvili continues wreak havoc with his box-kicking ability. He’s a savvy veteran who has somewhat-reluctantly yielded his leading role to the young Parra, and France has continued to advance as a direct result. And somehow, this guy never seems to sweat.
The Players’ Takes
New Zealand center Ma’a Nonu:
“This is the biggest occasion every four years for rugby and we’ve always fallen short in the semifinals or quarterfinals. We’re always trying to find answers for why we’ve fallen over.
“People say we always peak too early. This is probably our best chance and we want to take it.”
France winger Vincent Clerc:
“I think we are drawn to difficulty. We like difficulty. It allows us to bring out the best in ourselves. It’s a French default. It allows us to believe in the impossible.
“Often against the All Blacks, it’s these circumstances where you always see them as winners. That it’s logical when you lose against them. But in some ways it’s thanks to that that we’ve been able to upset them in the past.
“We’ve got to try. We know that we don’t have any other choice. We are going to try to write French history.”
So who will come out on top? You may just have to pry your way away from the Red Zone Channel to find out.
Photo Gallery: Scenes from the 2011 Rugby World Cup