Published 22/10/2011 | 05:00
IT'S 'in the bag', a 'done deal', and 'all over bar the shouting'.
Never has a Rugby World Cup final seen such one-sided predictions: tomorrow's decider in
Auckland is viewed more as a coronation than a contest -- an opportunity for New Zealanders to celebrate the crowning glory they believe is their entitlement.
The fact that they have not achieved World Cup validation since the inaugural tournament in 1987 does not threaten this Kiwi sense of self-regard when it comes to rugby.
New Zealand's failure to land the trophy for 24 years is rather viewed a bizarre quirk of fate and circumstance and explained by a variety of factors ranging from food poisoning (1995) to underhand tactics ('99) to Wayne Barnes (2007).
New Zealanders are gearing up for a national day of celebration.
This remote land has many admirers, not least for its stunning scenery, but take rugby away from New Zealand and the country would be largely ignored.
In Kiwi minds, rugby is their sport, and tomorrow is the chance to prove it.
Kiwis are bad losers and worse winners, and while the likes of Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith and the other All Blacks always carry themselves well in victory, their supporters will show no such restraint.
It could make for painful viewing, and the fact that New Zealand had to engineer home advantage to give themselves the best chance of landing the trophy again will be ignored in the orgy of self-congratulation -- no doubt including the unleashing of thousands of celebratory hakas.
So, is there any way France can spoil this party and strike a blow for northern hemisphere rugby, which is still regarded as second-class fare Down Under?
On the basis of logic -- not a hope. On the basis of romantic possibility, which requires everything to go right for France and nothing working out for the hosts then, yes ... well, maybe.
Assessing the prospects of a French victory, we find ourselves back in the realms of hope rather than expectations, of 'ifs' suppressing 'whens' and 'coulds' overpowering 'shoulds' but that is still preferable to blithely accepting what we are told is inevitable.
Over to the French.
In four of the six World Cups, the host nation has reached the final and once this tournament was given to New Zealand in 2005, the All Blacks were immediate favourites.
New Zealand's record at Eden Park is intimidating to say the least-- one defeat from 25 years and 39 matches (although that was against France, in 1994).
This is the ground where this All Blacks squad and the majority of their supporters have experienced nothing but success.
If the surroundings instil confidence in the men in the black, then so too does their progress to the final.
The loss of Dan Carter and various injury issues were unsettling, but any doubts were quickly soothed by convincing performances.
New Zealand have not been seriously threatened, even by Tri Nations-conquerors Australia, with Argentina in the first half of their quarter-final doing the most to ruffle them. It has created an overwhelming sense of self-belief that will be hard to crack.
France's World Cup campaign has been a tale of mediocrity and mismanagement, with Marc Lievremont hitting one bum note after another through strange selections, petulant pronouncements and rambling rants.
Somehow, the players have managed to plot a path through the morass, but France's performances have reflected the disharmony and, unless they have located some inner peace in their final week, it affords New Zealand a significant advantage.
Pace -- thought and deed
As Argentina proved, it is possible to match New Zealand in the set-pieces and shackle them close to the ruck.
However, the All Blacks will probe continually for weaknesses, and have the wit and ability to exploit them -- then, when they hit the afterburners with support arriving from all angles, it's game over before the opposition has had a chance to take stock.
It is impossible not to admire New Zealand's captain, who may have pushed the boat out law-wise and been over-indulged by referees, but is still an example of utter professionalism, work ethic, natural ability and modesty.
Even while playing through the pain of a damaged foot, McCaw's quality has shone through and it is hard to envisage him passing up this lifetime ambition.
No-one in New Zealand can envisage anything other than an All Blacks win.
The tension that consumed the nation before their semi-final against Australia has been replaced by giddy anticipation ahead of a 'sure thing'.
Try as they might to shut it all out, this complacency has to filter through to the New Zealand players.
France need to use it as motivation.
Unlike their Australian neighbours, New Zealand have never failed to recognise the importance of the scrum, even while embracing the move to greater fluidity.
They have a decent scrum but not one that will intimidate the French, who have the front five to do serious damage.
It might not be enough to guarantee an upset, but it would give the French a starting point.
France's tackling won the 2007 quarter-final against New Zealand and, amid all the chaos of this campaign, they have been defensively solid when they have had their game-faces on.
The intensity of their impact tackles unsettled the Kiwis four years ago and, if Thierry Dusautoir and Co get into the same groove, it could provide a significant psychological edge.
Just as with McCaw for New Zealand, Harinordoquy is the lifeblood of this French team. It has become increasingly apparent how big a role he has played in France's continuation after their coaching collapse. He is an exceptional player but one not widely acknowledged as such by a short-sighted Kiwi public. This is the stage he deserves.
Why not indeed? After all the hassle, hoopla and hysteria, France find themselves in the World Cup final so, now that they are here and no one gives them a rat's chance, they might as well have a cut.
That means tapping into the instinctive brand of rugby that Lievremont has largely coached out of his men -- quick penalties, a counter-attacking back three, plenty of support runners and a general air of recklessness.
It is what the All Blacks are most scared of.