Two years and 17 days will have passed since France played New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup trophy at Eden Park, Auckland, when the two teams renew their rivalry in Paris on Saturday.
Two years and 17 days in which France could have played their rugby as world champions, were it not for the single point advantage that the All Blacks held onto that night in 2011.
Had the Kiwis’ pack not kept their heads in the desperate last seconds while defending that 8-7 lead, we might be looking at a tale of revenge fought by two true heavyweights at the Stade de France.
Instead France have regressed, while New Zealand have swept nearly all before them. France felt that force in June, when they were thumped 3-0 in their three-Test tour.
It was the latest in what has been a terrible year for Les Bleus. After beating Australia, Argentina and Samoa in November 2012, they lost the first match of the Six Nations to Italy, and only recorded a result against Scotland as they finished bottom of the table.
“It was that defeat that conditioned all the others,” French second-row Pascal Papé told L’Équipe.
“That one made us put our heads in a bucket and made us lose lots of confidence.”
French skulls will have to be forcefully de-bucketed when the world’s best team – now finally with the Webb Ellis cup to prove it – perform the haka at the Stade de France.
Since winning the World Cup for the first time since 1987, former assistant Steve Hansen has taken over from Graham Henry and continued the habit of dominance between tournaments.
|France captain Thierry Dusautoir, right, was a tryscorer as Les Bleus ran New Zealand close in the World Cup final [Reuters]
Australia, Argentina and South Africa were no match in the Rugby Championship, while New Zealand have just one defeat, to England, and a draw against Australia in all Tests since the 2011 World Cup win.
“We will have to be intelligent and focussed defensively,” France coach Philippe Saint-André, who took over from Marc Lièvremont after the 2011 final, said on Thursday.
“It is important that the players believe in themselves, that they play with passion and intelligence, but most of all they must release the handbrake.
“There is obviously some fear when you face New Zealand. We should build on that fear; it must not annihilate us. We will need to run and be creative.”
It was fear that almost annihilated New Zealand at the final hurdle in 2011 when they came up against a French team who looked like they were totally fed up of the World Cup, and just wanted to sulkily beat up the All Blacks and go home.
But the capitulation that had dogged New Zealand in the previous 24 years was avoided, New Zealand showed guts to go with the glory, and it’s been back to free-flowing champagne rugby ever since.
Eleven wins on the bounce turned to 12 last week, when a much-tinkered-with team beat Japan 54-6.
But Hansen has ensured that luck will play minimal part in getting number 13 at the Stade de France on Saturday, with World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw back in his favoured openside flanker position in what is the most experienced All Blacks forward line ever selected.
“The full squad has come together well after the Japan Test and are united with a common purpose,” Hansen was quoted as saying in an NZRU press release.
“But we know this weekend’s Test won’t be easy. The French will come at us with real physicality, passion and something new.”
One player fits the bill in the “something new” category for his inexperience, although 29-year-old fly-half Remi Tales featured in two of those defeats to the All Blacks this summer.
He is picked alongside scrum-half Morgan Parra for the very first time, making the fulcrum of the French attack a prototype against a tried-and-trusted Kiwi machine.
Their starting XI has 853 Test caps, compared to just 389 for the French. Tales has two – both of them defeats to New Zealand.
In fact, 10 of the French team that lost the last Test 24-9 in New Plymouth will face the All Blacks again in Saint-Denis.
That may seem like gluttony for punishment. But sometimes defeat is needed to forge victory. What would be the point of selecting a team who had never had to learn the hard lessons?
“There is continuity in the group,” Clermont centre Wesley Fofana told L’Équipe.
“We just need time, the same as the Welsh and the English who did not lose patience when throwing young players into the game. Today, they are going well.”
With the next World Cup two years round the corner, France know their timeframe. The start date is Saturday.