Richie McCaw and Thierry Dusautoir prepare for own Thrilla in Manila

All Black and France flankers have enjoyed compelling rivalry for almost a decade

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw with France’s Thierry Dusautoir. “If there wasn’t a certain Richie McCaw running around during the same period, Dusautoir would be seen as the dominant guy who has played rugby in that position over a long period,” says New Zealand coach Steve Hansen

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw with France’s Thierry Dusautoir. “If there wasn’t a certain Richie McCaw running around during the same period, Dusautoir would be seen as the dominant guy who has played rugby in that position over a long period,” says New Zealand coach Steve Hansen

 

A confession: in 2007, embittered after being denied the chance to cover a World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff, I checked out from faux reality to embrace a weekend designed for youthful bliss.

That was this moment eight years ago. As the Saturday rolled towards Sunday, and after English scrum minced Wallaby babes in Marseille, we more or less witnessed New Zealand’s blackest night since Gallipoli.

Of course, comparing war to sport would be ridiculed by any combat veteran but that’s how the All Black hooker Anton Oliver described it afterwards. “The feeling in the shed is like no-man’s land as it’s described in those two books (The Massacre at Passchendaele and All Quiet on the Western Front),” said Oliver.

“There’s a sort of desolate decay and the smell of death.”

Rugby can feel like ancient warfare; but in battle men die. At rugby tournaments players get injured and go home – great, irreplaceable leaders – with the feeling of loss instantly followed by the need to pack and march onwards.

Loving arms

We only truly focused on the screen at the end, unaware that Serge Betsen departed early with concussion and so presumed it was the veteran flanker tearing into grey-skinned All Blacks. It was the relentless Richie McCaw who jarred the ball from Brendan Leonard’s arm like a coin trickling from the jukebox into Jean-Baptise Elissalde’s loving arms.

The haunted look on stranded Kiwi faces stays forever. Steve Hansen and Wayne Smyth had continued to plot as the seconds ticked towards 80 in between Graham Henry and Brian Lochore, who had both turned to stone.

There will never be anything like it again. And yet the very same game is happening today. As much as the All Blacks tried to defy it all week from their Swansea base, the memory still flickers.

The 2005 Lions tour promised us this would be the greatest All Blacks ever assembled. Until they were no more; Carl Hayman, Byron Kelleher, Doug Howlett, Chris Jack, Aaron Mauger and Jerry Collins never wore black again.

Having witnessed the 40-0 crushing of Scotland at Murrayfield in the pool stages, the theory held firm that the second best team in the world was their dirt trackers. The only positions that weren’t interchangeable were outhalf and openside flanker. McCaw and Dan Carter are now all that remain.

Younger guys

“They’ve been in places some of the younger guys haven’t been,” said Hansen. “So when it gets iffy, which it does in every game, some games a little longer than others, then those guys are hugely important to you.”

“What A Black Night, Richie” blazed the New Zealand Herald’s front page on that blood-thumpingly hazy Monday, October 8th 2007. Twas a perfect night for he who wore France’s number seven. Watch the YouTube video of Thierry Dusautoir’s 38 tackles. It never grows old. He also raced in a 54th-minute try.

Dusautoir matched that performance in the 2011 World Cup final. Only difference was Craig Joubert abdicated refereeing responsibilities in a reversal of Wayne Barnes’ refusal to award New Zealand a single penalty in the last hour of their last Cardiff defeat.

In both these meetings the French flanker of Ivory Coast extraction proved equal to the greatest player this game has ever known. A Frazier to McCaw’s Ali.

“Oh, definitely,” Hansen replied Thursday when asked if Dusautoir can repeat yesteryear performances. “He is one of the great players of all time. If there wasn’t a certain Richie McCaw running around during the same period, Dusautoir would be seen as the dominant guy who has played rugby in that position over a long period of time. He’s calculated, cool under pressure, smart rugby brain on him. And he’s a good man.”

If the 2007 quarter-final was rugby’s Fight of the Century today can become its Thrilla in Manila.

Just like when Frazier pounded Ali en route in unanimous victory, eight years ago Dusautoir bettered a brilliant showing by McCaw: see the 73rd minute, with France 20-18 ahead, McCaw gathers but is rag dolled by Dusautoir. See the 74th minute, New Zealand creep into French territory, McCaw picks and goes but is judo slammed into the ruck. See the 75th minute, McCaw picks and is felled by Dusautoir. See the 76th minute, Dusautoir senses a McCaw break in the France 22 and flips around to snag him. The 77th minute, McCaw picks for no gain. Not an inch.

Blue seven lumped on top of grey seven.

“Over the years played him a few times and you always know he’s there,” said McCaw yesterday. “Think you saw that last week in the Irish game, defensively and around the breakdown areas. It’s going to be a good challenge.”

Beyond repair

Tonight is their third World Cup knockout meeting. Tonight is their Manila. A game that may end a great career or damage one or both beyond repair.

The need for atonement was suggested to McCaw. “Eight years is a long time, lot of rugby since then, but for myself those days are the ones you learn a few lessons. Good times have come since then.”

New Zealand losing to France has another magical chapter. In the 1999 World Cup semi-final at Twickenham something even more inexplicable transpired. With Jonah Lomu at his devastating peak, New Zealand led 24-10 until France dived into the wonder. Christophe Lamaison put up 28 points. Dominici was untouchable. It ended as a 43-31 rout.

But any All Black defeat becomes ingrained in the New Zealand psyche.

Swansea RFC welcomed the All Blacks this week for an eighth time. Not unlike Munster remembering 1978, the All Whites 11-3 victory on September 28th 1935 got its 80th anniversary bash last month.

“Tell them at home, we have been beaten. But please don’t tell them it was by a pair of schoolboys,” Jack Manchester, the All Black captain, pleaded with the travelling media.

Impossible

The 18-year-old heroes were Willie Davies and Hayden Tanner. Page one of the South Wales Evening Post the following day made Manchester’s request impossible: “New Zealand beaten by schoolboy half-backs”.

On entering the St Helen’s club house, this headline was blown up on the wall. Ma’a Nonu looked, smiled and shrugged.

Keen students of their own history, surely a group led by Hansen, McCaw and Carter will not be victims to more Gallic alchemy today.

Surely no more desolate decay.

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