AUCKLAND, New Zealand — New Zealand will rely on the same starting XV which beat Australia in the semifinals to try to end its long Rugby World Cup drought in Sunday’s final against France.
Graham Henry made only one change in the 22-man squad — bringing Adam Thomson onto the bench at Victor Vito’s expense — on Friday for the final at Eden Park, where New Zealand will attempt to win the William Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time since 1987.
Thomson has battled ankle and knee injuries throughout the tournament but has been passed fit this week. Henry said the change was no reflection on Vito but Thomson had greater experience in big test matches.
“One of the guys has been there before, played big test matches. The other one hasn’t had that experience very often,” he said.
Richie McCaw, playing his 103rd test, will lead a starting XV which has a combined 708 test caps. He will combine with Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino in the backrow for the 21st test, an All Blacks record for a loose forward trio.
Keven Mealamu will earn his 92nd test cap in the final, equaling the All Blacks’ record for a hooker set by 1987 World Cup winner Sean Fitzpatrick.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Mealamu said. “Sean was my manager in the New Zealand under-20s.
“He was a great leader and a true professional and I’m pretty amazed to be able to play the same number of tests as him.”
Henry possibly named his last All Blacks team on Friday because he is thought likely to step down after Sunday’s final, ending his seven year tenure as New Zealand coach. Asked if that was the case, he replied: “Who knows?”
Henry said he believed the All Blacks had prepared well for Sunday’s match but “finals football” was a new experience for the current group of players.
“This is our 12th test match in 14 weeks,” he said. “I don’t think that has ever happened before so it’s pretty demanding, the constant rugby and the toll that takes on the body and the mind probably.
“We have to make sure we dovetail what we’re doing to that situation. We can’t be over-physical at training and we haven’t been so we’ve just got to prepare accordingly because of the situation.
“Quite a few of the boys know they’ve played 12 test matches in the last 14 weeks or will do after Sunday.”
Aaron Cruden was retained at flyhalf, starting back-to-back tests at No. 10 after being drafted into the squad when star playmaker Dan Carter was ruled out with a tournament-ending groin injury. The 22-year-old Cruden will be making his 9th test appearance.
All Blacks great Grant Fox was playing only his seventh test in the 1987 victory over France, when scored 17 points in the 29-9 win and finished the inaugural tournament with a record 126 points. Fox’s mark still stands as the highest individual tally at a World Cup tournament.
The All Blacks beat No. 2-ranked Australia 20-6 last Sunday and have been in dominant form in the tournament, including a 37-17 win over France in the pool stage.
“I’ve been with a lot of these guys for a long time and, though they may be the leading team in the world, they’ve never been world champions,” Henry said. “It would be just marvelous to have that title because they’ve had every other title that’s going apart from this one.
“So for Richie (McCaw) and the boys I think it would be fantastic. You don’t deserve that title until you do the job. I think they’re good enough. That would be the icing on the cake, really.”
France comes into the final in patchy form, following scrappy wins over Japan and Canada with losses to New Zealand and Tonga in the group stage. The French produced their best rugby to beat England in the quarterfinals, but struggled to hold off a 14-man Wales 9-8 in the semifinals.
After beating France in the 1987 final, the All Blacks have lost knockout matches to the French, including the semifinals in 1999 and the quarterfinals four years ago.
France coach Marc Lievremont has stuck with the same starting lineup for the entire knockout round.