France coach Marc Lievremont apologised to his players here on Wednesday in the run-up to their World Cup final with New Zealand as All Blacks great Jonah Lomu boosted the Wallabies with a surprise visit.
Lievremont, for the first time in his four years in charge of France, named an unchanged side twice running when he stuck with the team that just saw off 14 man Wales 9-8 in the semi-final to reach the climax against New Zealand at Eden Park here on Sunday.
But that was not the main talking point as Lievremont admitted he’d been wrong to publicly label those who disobeyed his instruction to avoid partying after the semi-final win as “spoilt brats” and “selfish”.
“I should have kept my big fat mouth shut when I saw myself quoted all over the front pages of the written press,” Lievremont said Wednesday.
It was hard to know what was more unsettling for the All Blacks — the sight of the French arguing amongst themselves or Lievremont’s apology.
New Zealand are overwhelming favourites to beat France this weekend, having already defeated them in pool play, and so repeat their 1987 victory at Eden Park when they beat Les Bleus in the inaugural World Cup final.
In marked contrast to France, all appears calm in the hosts’ camp but that didn’t stop New Zealand back Sonny Bill Williams repeating a familiar mantra.
“Past form means nothing,” Williams said. ”
“Their scrum is up there with the best in the world, their lineout is not too bad either and their backs are unpredictable. Expect the unexpected.”
There are various ways of measuring the strength of New Zealand rugby and the fact the coaches for Friday’s bronze final, Australia’s Robbie Deans and Wales’s Warren Gatland, are both Kiwis is one of them.
Wednesday saws Dean named an Australia team showing eight changes, mostly injury-enforced, to the side beaten 20-6 by New Zealand last weekend.
Full-back Kurtley Beale was included following a hamstring injury that kept him out of the game while lock Nathan Sharpe was recalled, leaving him in line to become only the fifth Wallaby to win 100 caps.
Deans, reflecting on the success of this World Cup, voiced concerns the tournament may never return to his homeland, a rugby superpower but small in global economic terms, if commercial considerations always came first.
“It’s been a success. The interesting thing for the IRB is will it ever come back to a place like New Zealand again?
“You can’t just go to a commercial destination for these events all the time.”
As Deans mused on New Zealand’s future, it was a Kiwi face from the past, albeit the recent past, who gave his players a pick-me-up when Lomu, in a rare public appearance since being discharged from hospital following his latest bout of kidney trouble, turned up at Australia’s training session.
“It was pretty crazy to have him there. He made the players train better,” Beale said. “He’s a well-respected man in the game and one of the legends.”
Meanwhile the enduring excellence of New Zealand rugby was emphasised again when three All Blacks set to play in Sunday’s final — flanker Jerome Kaino, centre Ma’a Nonu and scrum-half Piri Weepu — provided 50 percent of the shortlist for the IRB Player of the Year Award unveiled Wednesday.
The other three nominees for an award that for the past two years has been the property of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw were France skipper Thierry Dusautoir and the Wallaby duo of David Pocock and Will Genia.
While there are six runners in the race to be the IRB’s top player for 2011, only two remain in the hunt to become the global governing body’s next chairman.
Wednesday ought to have witnessed a vote to decide whether French incumbent Bernard Lapasset was given a second term or was instead ousted by vice-chairman and former England captain Bill Beaumont.
But the ruling IRB council decided to delay the vote until after the World Cup final, with the ballot now set to be held in December.