IN THE SPOTLIGHT: IT IS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ALL BLACKS CHANGING ROOM – FRANCE IN THE 2007 WORLD CUP QUARTERFINALS AT THE MILLENNIUM STADIUM.
Some 18,360 kilometres (11,400 miles) from the All Blacks’ base in Swansea, 4.5 million New Zealanders are baying for “utu”, the native Maori word for payback.
How France turned a 3-13 deficit at half-time into a 20-18 victory in that quarterfinal is etched in the national psyche, yet the All Blacks – facing a repeat of the enemy, venue and occasion on Saturday – don’t talk about it.
There are shades of Basil Fawlty’s “don’t mention the war” line as New Zealanders await their date with destiny.
When 2007 is raised by journalists on a daily basis the stock response is “it’s not something we talk about” with a look afterwards that suggests the players are thinking: “I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.”
It was a different time and different team, says Dan Carter, one of two survivors along with Richie McCaw who played for the All Blacks on that fateful day.
One-tenth of Carter’s illustrious 109-Test career has been spent battling France.
He has faced them 11 times with 2007 the only time he has tasted defeat, but he has taken lessons from every confrontation
“I’ve played against them enough to know how dangerous they are,” he said.
“They are a quality side. They are a very unpredictable side, and form and momentum does not count for a lot with the French. They can be poor one week and awesome the following week.”
If there is any feeling of payback in Saturday’s sudden-death encounter, Carter believes it will be with the French looking to make an emphatic statement.
Les Bleus would be disappointed with their performances in this tournament, especially the loss to Ireland “and that’s a dangerous sign for us,” he said.
“It’s one thing I have learned is they love playing the All Blacks in big matches and this weekend is going to be one of those and no matter what’s happened in the past this is a separate game and I know the French will perform out of their skins.”
When the final whistle blew in the French-Ireland pool match, which decided who would play the All Blacks in the quarterfinals, French coach Philippe Saint-Andre immediately claimed underdog status.
The French were at their best with their backs against the wall, Saint-Andre said, and he would know.
As a player, he sparked the move on full-time that led to the “try from the end of the world” at Eden Park in 1994 when nine players handled the ball in an 80-metre move before Jean-Luc Sadourny scored to win the game for France 23-20.
It was the try that gave rise to the term “French flair” and All Blacks fullback Ben Smith believed that naming New Zealand as favourites was the unpredictable Saint-Andre at his counter-attacking best.
“I think the French team will have a lot of belief in themselves. I think they’ve been playing some great rugby so I wouldn’t say they’re huge underdogs,” said Smith.
“If that was us and we were in that situation we would have a lot of trust in what we’re doing.
“Whenever we do get an opportunity we really have to nail it. We’ve got to unleash or we will be going home.”