In 1999, the All Blacks looked set to progress all the way to their second Rugby World Cup title.
Victories over Tonga and England in the first two rounds followed by a 101-3 thumping of Italy in the final game of pool play sent the All Blacks into the knockout stages with all form in hand.
Then, in the semi-finals, the French crushed the hopes of a nation by defeating the All Blacks 43-31.
Gone was the hope, once again, that the All Blacks would win the Rugby World Cup for the second time in their history.
Then, in 2007, the All Blacks looked unstoppable. They gave away just four tries in all of pool play. They averaged 77 points a game and finished with a points differential of +274.
It was, as the punters put it, a ‘sure thing.’
And who should the All Blacks meet in the quarter-finals? The same team that had forced its foot at their throat just four years prior.
The scene was set. Millennium Stadium. 72,000 fans. Redemption.
Enter Wayne Barnes. And a game that will be forever etched in rugby history.
That forward pass. That yellow card. That crucial penalty.
France had knocked out the All Blacks again, 20-18.
Fast-forward to 2011, and the hoodoo struck again. The All Blacks would face France in the Rugby World Cup final, in New Zealand, for the second time in history.
This time, however, they made no mistake.
8-7. Thank you Tony Woodcock; rise Sir Beaver.
It was but a mere rebuttal to a French onslaught that had lasted almost 25 years.
Now, as if the rugby gods had written their own piece of poetry, the All Blacks and French are to meet again in the quarter-finals.
Once again, Millennium Stadium. Once again, 72,000. Once again, it’s do-or-die.
But this time, the All Blacks have more to prove than ever.
Yes, they defeated the French in 2011 to claim rugby’s most coveted prize, but this means something else.
Northern Hemisphere. Cardiff. Millennium. 2007. It’s got to mean more.
This time, the All Blacks will slaughter the French. There is no doubt.
Unlike the past, the media has played right into the All Blacks hands. It has been a non-stop barrage of questions, accusations and assumptions about the All Blacks ability to rid the voodoo and rectify the loss of 2007. This is exactly what they need.
In 2011, Sir Graham Henry filled the All Blacks dressing room with newspaper cutouts right before the final, of what the media had been saying about 2007. It fired the boys up. And it’ll do the same thing again.
The players have been stiff all week. Dismissing the media bait and focusing on the important things. It is the notion that 2007 will repeat itself that will make the All Blacks more determined than ever.
Cast your mind back to August this year. The All Blacks lost to the Wallabies in Sydney and the response was devastating. Even New Zealand’s own media lost belief in the All Blacks only months out from the RWC. But a week later, the All Blacks demolished the Wallabies in one of the most complete performances of the past four years. They thrive on the challenge. They yearn to prove people wrong.
But what about some more tangible reasons.
Well experience is a start.
The All Blacks boast close to ten returning players from the 2011 World Cup. Mix that with the explosive talent of rising stars such as Aaron Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Smith, and you have the perfect recipe. Its something France lacks and it will prove the difference.
As far as form goes, the All Blacks haven’t played great rugby, yet they still hold the most tries scored so far at this World Cup. The fact that they have grinded out convincing wins despite not being at their peak is a testament to just how good this side is.
Couple that with the fact that All Blacks haven’t lost a World Cup match since 2007 means they are still on the top of their game.
As for France, an uncomfortably tight win against Italy in pool play as well as a heavy loss to Ireland mean they are far from being an in-form team.
Now, with the news that the players have sacked head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, things keep going from bad to worse. The locker room is a mess, they lack leadership and cohesion and those are things you need on your side when you face a team like the All Blacks.
Defense is another key area.
The All Blacks missed only four tackles in their pool game against Georgia. An enormous achievement considering the size and strength of the Georgians.
France, on the other hand, are having to make a lot more tackles (an average of 124 per game compared to the All Blacks 88) and average 16 missed tackles a game.
Considering the plethora of attacking prowess in the All Black backline, this will make things especially tough for the French, and it is hard to see their defense lasting the full 80.
Now, all stats and facts aside. All media speculation and betting odds forgotten. This is France. And this is a side that has an unparalleled sense of belief, pride and determination. There is no doubt that they will test the All Blacks to the very limit.
However, this time round, there is just too much on the All Blacks side. All the talent in the squad points towards a complete blowout.
Dan Carter is still fully fit and on his way to winning his first Rugby World Cup, after he missed 2007 and 2011 with injury. Richie, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Mealamu and Woodcock are all hanging up the boots and this is the way they want to go out.
The talent, the heart, the camaraderie, the passion.
This is our time again.
All Blacks 43 France 10.