It’s 1999, Australia has won the cricket World Cup, Britney Spears’ song “…baby one more time” is the year’s biggest hit, New Zealand are strong favourites for the Rugby World Cup and everything is normal.
That is until France shock the All Blacks, scoring 33 points to their 7 and coming back from 24-10 down. Hailed as the greatest World Cup match ever, this was the French at their best and one wonders whether they can repeat the feat.
This time New Zealand are clear favourites once again, but they are yet to emerge from second gear in this tournament. In the closest of their group matches against Scotland, they won by 40 clear points and Graham Henry has rotated his squad to give everyone plenty of rest as they ambled through September. Everyone is expecting them to win, and you’d forgive them for expecting it themselves since people keep telling them how good they are.
By contrast, France were woken up with a jolt from their opening night reverie after losing to Argentina and had to face the wrath of their passionate followers. Now with convincing wins over Ireland, Georgia and Namibia behind them, they are looking stronger and stronger and could do to the All Blacks what the Pumas did to them.
On their day, the French can be masters of the unexpected, as that famous 1999 encounter demonstrated. They are fresh from the rugby coal-face after surviving the ‘Pool of Death’ and will be looking to win back the support of their rugby public. If their pack starts well, the back row of Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir and Serge Betsen can try to starve the New Zealand backs of quality possession, retaining the ball and hindering their opponents’ gameplan based on turnover ball and frightening pace.
Fly-half Lionel Beauxis and full-back Damien Traille will pin the opposition back and allow the forwards to put pressure on the potentially fallible All Black set-piece. Playing the territory game, Beauxis will punish any infringements whilst Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans on the wings will be potent attacking weapons.
The odds are against them, but France should not be underestimated – maybe, just maybe, the World Cup hosts (even though the game is in Wales) can pull off another shock result. Although Britney Spears has fallen a long way since 1999, the French could still be world beaters.