History is no lesson for class of 2011

The line-up for the Rugby World Cup final could bode well for New Zealand after this weekend’s semi-finals but the reality is that now is all that matters.

New Zealand is hoping that history repeats itself next week.

Twenty-four years ago, the All Blacks won their only Rugby World Cup when they beat France in the final at Eden Park in Auckland.

If the French get past Wales in their semi-final on Saturday, and New Zealand come through against Australia on Sunday, the comparisons will be irresistible for a country that has been pining for the Webb Ellis Cup since they lost it in 1991.

The four teams in these semi-finals are the same as in 1987, the difference being that, back then, it was Australia v France and New Zealand v Wales.

The truth is, of course, that history never repeats itself.

If the reality on October 23 is New Zealand v France, it will have absolutely nothing to do with previous finals.

Comparison is a comfort, and that’s what All Blacks fans will be looking for until their dream of Richie McCaw holding the cup has been fulfilled.

New Zealand, if you excuse the team’s World Cup finishes, has produced the most exciting and consistent rugby team on the planet with a population of just over four million.

But if they do beat the Wallabies on Sunday – and that is by no means certain against a team looking for a record third trophy – it could be an even smaller country that thwarts their progress to glory.

Wales are back on the brink of the World Cup final for the first time since they lost their semi to New Zealand in 1987. It couldn’t happen to a nicer set of lads, and a set who may become the greatest lads ever to pull on the red jersey.

Covering a World Cup rugby team can, in certain cases, feel like going to ask for a boon at the feet of a particularly malevolent king. Not in the case of Wales.

England coach Martin Johnson, for example, gives the impression that he thinks press conferences should be rebranded “idiot conferences”. Chatting one-on-one to the English players is rather nicer, but you still get the feeling that you’re talking to the media-training consultant rather than the player.

Wales couldn’t be more different. Four years ago, ahead of a World Cup match against Fiji, the Welsh held a press conference at their team hotel in Pornichet, France, at about eight in the morning.

The “conference” consisted of the captain at the time, Gareth Thomas, striding into the car park still wrapped in a towel, and answering questions while throwing fairly insulting jokes in the direction of the team’s media manager, as other players wandered around in various states of undress.

The Welsh are professionals who like a laugh, and are grown-up enough to talk to people with notepads, cameras and tape recorders without having someone holding their hand.

They are also excellent rugby players. The defeat of Ireland in the quarter-finals was near-perfect in every area. But now come the intangibles. France.

Before they played England last week, they were awful. They beat Japan and Canada, and lost to New Zealand and Tonga. Now they could be in their first final since 1999. That’s the thing about knockout rugby. You just have to stay there.

As for the All Blacks, their buildup has focused on the fitness of their captain, McCaw, a flanker who suffers little competition in claims to be the best player in the world.

Loose screw

McCaw is undergoing only light training after having a screw placed into a broken bone in his right foot in February. The loose forward’s aura is so important to the All Blacks’ public that he was not allowed to be photographed wearing trainers instead of boots at a fitness session on Thursday.

He will be vital against Australia, who have a similarly talented flanker in David Pocock, and who was instrumental in the quarter-final defeat of South Africa.

Another fear for New Zealand is the crucial fly half position. Torn groins have accounted for the talismanic Dan Carter and for his replacement, Colin Slade.

Rookie Aaron Cruden comes in, with Stephen Donald abandoning a fishing trip to join the All Blacks as cover at number 10.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that New Zealand will go into a form of mourning if they lose on Sunday, especially against their closest rivals, Australia.

The All Blacks lost the Tri-Nations series to the Wallabies just before the World Cup, but New Zealand coach Graham Henry said it would be a different game.

“Total different focus – World Cup semi-final,” he pointed out at Friday’s press conference.

“If they’re not focused now they’ll never be focused. Simple as that. There’s no excuses for us.”